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The History and Future of Singular They

In some circles, it’s become a hot-button issue: the use of “they” (along with “their,” “theirs,” and “them”) when referring to a singular person. People who are nonbinary, genderfluid, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum have been owning this pronoun with increasing regularity over the last decade. Unless you’re a linguist, dictionary writer, or historian, you likely think that the use of the singular “they” is a recent development.

That’s far from the case.

Old School Pronoun

Language historians trace the use of a singular “they” all the way back to the late 14th century. When the subject of a sentence is both non-specific and quantifiable, “they” has always been appropriate in the singular. Some examples:

  • If a professor catches you cheating, they will certainly give you a failing grade.
  • I called for a plumber. They should be here in an hour.
  • Marvel just hired a director for their next movie. I hope they’re awesome!

Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, among towering literary figures, used this form of the singular “they.” You’ve likely used it many times in your life. Or this year. Or today.

But then grammarians stepped in, pushing the patriarchy into another place it didn’t belong: language. In the 1500s, William Lily published a Latin textbook declaring “the masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine, and the feminine more worthy than the neuter.” While compared to other languages, English is relatively genderless, but the hierarchy was put into place. The rule passed from Latin to English, and “he” was seen as acceptable when referring to a person of unknown gender. “He” was even declared as inclusive of all genders by law in England and the United States.

Bonus for the patriarchy: “He” only had to be seen as inclusive of all genders until it was inconvenient. It was all too easy to then tell women that “he” really only meant men as the patriarchy saw fit. It wasn’t until second-wave feminism in the 1960s that “he” saw widespread rejection as an inclusive pronoun.

Where Is Our Singular, Genderless Pronoun?

To really understand the whole issue here, we have to look at the pronouns currently available to English speakers, as they stand today.

Subject Pronoun Object Pronoun Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun
First I Me My Mine
Second You You Your Yours
Third (Female) She Her Her Hers
Third (Male) He Him His His
Third It It Its
First Plural We Us Our Ours
Second Plural You You Your Yours
Third Plural They Them Their Theirs
For brevity, I didn’t include the reflexive pronouns, but you get the idea.

Both the connotation and denotation of “it” isn’t something we associate with or want to associate with a person, that leaves us with no real way to refer to a singular person without referring to gender. So in addition to co-opting “they” into new use, English speakers have a history of creating new pronouns to fill the gap.

“Some, like ‘hesh’ and ‘hiser,’ both from the 1800s, were combinations of the existing pronouns,” Cody Cottier wrote for Discover Magazine. “Then there was ‘thon,’ a contraction of ‘that one’ that may have come closest to general recognition.”

Today, there are a number of neopronouns being put to good use by gender fluid and nonbinary folks. Xe and Ze tend to see the most use, but there are a number of others, depending upon each person’s personal comfort and identification.

The Insidious Power of Prescriptivism

So if it all comes down to history and pedantic rules of English grammar, why is there so much vocal, emotional pushback to using “they” as a singular pronoun when referring to nonbinary and genderfluid individuals? While some of it is driven by old-fashioned bigotry (and the topic for a great many other articles), the largest driver of this division is prescriptivism.

Some of you may remember back in 2015 when Merriam Webster added (to paraphrase) “figuratively” as a colloquial definition for “literally.” People lost their minds, raging against the age-old dictionary for changing the definition of the word. Except Merriam Webster didn’t change the definition; English speakers did that. Merriam Webster, Cambridge, Oxford, and every other dictionary maker aren’t prescriptivist. They don’t decide what words mean. They observe how people are using the words, and then update their dictionaries accordingly.

It’s like people who demand that “whom” still be used correctly, even though other morphemes like “whon” died out long ago.

It’s also like anyone who tries to tear down African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as “improper” or “incorrect,” rather than recognizing that it is likely the next linguistic step in English. The history of the English language is a story of reducing morphemes, and AAVE is just that. And any argument against AAVE is likely rooted deeply in racism.

These views are prescriptivist, trying to tell others how to use English because they believe in some sort of right-and-wrong delineation regarding language. But language is living. It has changed dramatically from its Franco-Germanic roots, through Old English and Middle English to what we have now. That’s not even to speak of the countless dialects and creoles being spoken around the world.

So next time someone throws a fit about using “they” to refer to a singular person, send them my way. Or point them to a this linguist or these or these, and grab some popcorn. At the very least, tell them that defending a prescriptivist definition of a word really isn’t a hill they want to die on.

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