The Inevitability of the Singular ‘They’
The singular ‘they’ has been a hot topic of late. Last month the Washington Post style guide threw in the towel and accepted it, however tentatively. Then the American Dialect Society voted it the Word of the Year. Then it really hit the big time, being discussed here in last week’s Linky Friday post.
People have been using and promoting and condemning and generally bickering about the construction for years, but something is different now. The expansion of the usage has entered its late phase. There are three related usages that are normally combined in the discussion: (1) when the antecedent is syntactically singular but semantically plural; (2) when the antecedent is unambiguously singular, but not of a particular, definite individual (or one of unknown sex); and (3) when the antecedent is a definite individual of known sex. The first two usage are old, established features of English grammar, long predating any complaints raised about them. The third one is new.
In usage (1) the antecedent typically is an indefinite pronoun such as “everyone” or a noun modified an adjective such as “every”:
(1a) Every student took their seat.
“Every student” is syntactically singular, but usually refers to multiple students, giving it a plural feel. A sentence such as (1a) is unremarkable, and usually goes unnoticed except when a grammar peever is looking to make trouble. The grammar-peever’s approved version of this is
(1b) Every student took his seat.
Even apart from the issue of a mixed-sex classroom, this has the problem that we wonder whose seat it is they took, and didn’t it get awfully crowded with all those students in it? This leads frequently to the advice to recast the sentence to avoid the issue, often by making the antecedent plural:
(1c) All of the students took their seats.
This often works well enough. (1c) is clear and means the same thing, and is only slightly clunky. It doesn’t always work so well, but that isn’t really the point. Version 1a is perfectly natural English. The peevers are making trouble, and appeasing them offers no payoff other than shutting them up briefly.
Back before grammar peeving became trendy, this construction was used routinely by the best writers. Chaucer is the earliest known to have used it, and there are innumerable examples in the King James Bible. Here are a couple:
And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers. Numbers 2:34.
Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues. Philemon 2:3.
Jane Austen used this constantly. This example is from late in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet tells Mr. Darcy
To be sure, you knew no actual good of me — but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.
And so on. This is standard English and has been since before Modern English existed.
I suspect, but cannot prove, that the second usage, with a singular but indefinite personal antecedent, derives from the first. The entry point for the first form is that a word like “everyone” feels plural, regardless of its syntactic number. Words like “every” also have an indefinite feel to them. When we talk about “every student” we might technically be discussing a discrete, finite set of known individuals, but step into that classroom and it feels like a mob of indistinct humanity. This sense of indefiniteness leads to the singular “they” being extended to an unambiguously singular but indefinite construction:
(2a) When I am introduced to someone new, I greet them.
The peever-approved form is
(2b) When I am introduced to someone new, I greet him.
This has the problem that “him” is, in other uses, specifically masculine. Presumably the speaker is occasionally introduced to women, and greets them, too. The claim is that “him” is used here in an extended, gender-neutral sense. This is implausible on its face, but even stipulating to the claim, it is an extension of the pronoun beyond its traditional grammatical limits–just like singular “they.” The strategies for avoiding this are either to use the old tactic of recasting the sentence in the plural:
(2c) When I am introduced to new people, I greet them.
or the newer, and awkward, tactic of an explicitly inclusive construction such as
(2d) When I am introduced to someone new, I greet him or her.
An important point that these strategies obscure is that this construction originally had nothing to do with gender inclusiveness. It is nearly as old as first form, and its early uses make clear that political correctness had nothing to do with it. From the King James Bible:
So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses. Matthew 18:35
The antecedent “his brother” is about as singular and as gender-specific as antecedents get, but it is indefinite: it isn’t discussion Fred’s brother Bob, but your brother, whoever you and he are. Hence it gets the “their trespasses.”
Here is another one, this time from Jane Austen’s Emma. Emma is speaking to Mr. Knightley, discussing Harriet Smith:
Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?
It would be a racier novel were we to suppose that “their” was used to avoid being gender-specific. Sadly, this interpretation is not supported by the text. This singular “they” construction was used because the antecedent is indefinite, not because the antecedent is of unknown of flexible gender.
This is an important point to make. Critics of the singular ‘they’ sometimes see instances such as this and decry them as political correctness gone mad. They miss the point. Gender inclusivity is a feature of the construction, but not its origin or necessarily the reason it is used: it is used because it feels natural to many users of Standard English. Argue that this usage is simply a sop to the feminists and you have to explain why the King James translators felt the need.
Finally we get to the third version, when the antecedent is a definite person of known gender. This is new. Standard discussions from just a few years ago of the singular ‘they’ often included discussions of how it was not used in this way. Those crazy kids nowadays have extended the singular ‘they.’ The American Dialect Society in its press release states “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person…” Just so. I don’t know of any formal investigation of the phenomenon, but anecdotally, the younger set (teens and twenties) use this form unconsciously. Here is an example I have seen:
(3) There was this boy in class, and they wouldn’t stop talking, so the teacher sent them to the office.
There is still some room here. Compare it with
(3a) Joe wouldn’t stop talking, so the teacher sent them to the office.
I’m not sure if those crazy kids are taking it quite that far, but that is the obvious direction things are heading.
This brings me to my one point of disagreement with the ADS press release. The rest of that sentence was “…often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.” The ADS is identifying modern understandings of gender as the point of the construction. This makes the same mistake as the peevers who complain about usage (2) being crazily PC when the gender is known. The point of usage (3) is not to accommodate situations were neither “he” nor “she” really apply. This accommodation is a feature of the usage, but in the real world people don’t stop and think about such things when choosing a pronoun. This is semi-automatic stuff that, the vast majority of the time, you don’t think about at all. People use this construction because, for them, this is an unremarkable feature of their idiolect.
I weaseled there about whether this is a feature of Standard English, but if it ain’t, it will be sooner rather than later. Hence the title of this piece. This is inevitable. All those creative proposed pronouns never had a chance. This might seem counter-intuitive. We adopt new words all the time. How did we ever get by without schadenfreude? How would a Democrat talk about the Trump campaign without it? The Anglophone world’s collective reaction upon discovering this Teutonic gem was celebration: we hadn’t realized that we needed this word, but in retrospect it filled a grievous gap in the language. So why not some new pronoun? The difference is that nouns and verbs and so forth are content words, and these are open sets. New nouns enter the language all the time, and old ones drop out. Pronouns and prepositions and the like are function words, and are closed sets. It is possible to sit down and make a list of every pronoun, and it isn’t even all that long a list. Function words only change slowly, and not due to some blog item that everyone thinks is brilliant. It is that semi-automatic stuff that you don’t usually think about. It is much easier to adapt an existing pronoun than to introduce a new once: hence the singular ‘they.’
For those with a lingering distaste for the singular ‘they,’ the same thing happened with the singular ‘you.’ “You” is the traditional second person plural pronoun. The singular form was “thou” (and its inflected forms). “You” got extended to niceties of social rank, as with the royal “We.” (Does the Queen use that still? Heck if I know. Perhaps on very formal occasions.) Use of “thou” gradually grew restricted to intimates and social inferiors, like the French “vous” and “tu” (which, not coincidentally, are cognates with “you” and “thou”.) Eventually it dropped out of use entirely from Standard English (though it survives in some dialects). People made much the same complaints as they do about singular ‘they.’ And yet we make do just fine. It is possible to come up with ambiguities that would be solved by using “thou,” but in practice this isn’t really a problem. So it will be with singular ‘they.’