It’s been in regular usage since 1375.
Oh, I’m so happy right now! It was recently announced that the American Dialect Society has named the singular “they” as 2019’s word of the year. This auspicious body always chooses a word that reflects the way we express ourselves in the modern world, and this one is perfect.
They made this choice because of its ever-increasing use as a gender neutral pronoun. And indeed, I can think of several people in my inner circle who have chosen they as their pronoun rather than he or she. I also see they used more and more to protect identity, such as in the case of Trump’s whistleblower. These are both excellent reasons to use the singular they.
And while those things are enough to make me happy, I’m positively ecstatic that this decision has opened up a discussion of the singular they in general. In fact, it’s finding its way into more and more usage guides. I wish my favorite, the Chicago Manual of Style, would get with the program, already. The snobbery over the use of this word has long been a pet peeve of mine.
Even the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary admits that the singular “they” has been in regular usage since at least 1375. They also point out that no one complains about the use of the singular “you”. Yup. “You” is a plural pronoun just as “they” is. The singular for you is, technically, thou. But wouldn’t you feel silly saying thou? I definitely would.
I’ve always felt that most grammar snobs are hopelessly pompous in their insistence that the English language remain timeless and inflexible. Don’t even get me started about those fools who still believe you can’t end a sentence with a preposition.
In fact, I view language as a sort of living, breathing organism that shifts and grows across time and culture. That’s one of the things that I love most about it. Language is a tool that we employ to communicate clearly. It’s not a cage in which we lock ourselves.
Besides, whether they admit it or not, every single person who is reading this post has used the singular they within the past 24 hours. (See what I did there?) I guarantee it. So join me in casting aside your grammatical guilt. Let they come out to play!
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3 thoughts on “The Singular They”
I’ve got a prescriptivist epithet of a cousin who gets on my case for how I pronounce certain words–despite no one else has had trouble understanding them. I’ve got my own trigger points when it comes to language, but I have at least learned not to butt in, and to just say whatever it is in the way I am used to.
As a nonbinary I still feel a bit twitchy about “they”, if only because I am just one person–but hey, it’s a start, and I’m for it.