When the student got to school, they realised they had forgotten their lunch.
There are three examples of the singular they in that sentence. Did you notice? Would you have written it any differently?
Of course, I could have written:
When the student got to school, he or she realised he or she had forgotten his or her lunch.
That’s a bit unwieldy! And potentially wrong. But definitely not inclusive.
The singular they can be used for two reasons:
The singular they pronoun
The word singular in the term singular they refers to how many people the pronoun refers to. I, you and it are singular pronouns (referring to only one person), and we, you and they are plural pronouns (referring to more than one person).
The term singular they traditionally meant that the usually plural pronoun could be used to denote one person if the gender of the person is unknown. It has now evolved to also be used for when the person identifies with the ungendered pronoun they rather than the gendered pronouns he or she.
APA style suggests to use combination forms such as he or she only if you know that these pronouns match the people being described.
History of the singular they grammar rule
The singular they can be used when the person’s gender is unknown, unknowable, irrelevant, ignored or being hidden.
It has had a long history, and is here to stay, despite what you were taught in school. Language changes and evolves, and, in this case, has come full circle.
The singular they goes back to 1375 in written form, and is likely to be even older in spoken form. However, language evolves (if you don’t believe me, try reading something in Old English, or even Shakespeare’s works), and in the eighteenth century, grammarians decided that the singular they could not be used for plural antecedents; that is, you had to use he or she, or even better, just he. They conveniently forgot that the plural you had replaced the singular thee, thou, and thy the century before. Today we use you without a thought and it’s accepted as both the singular and plural second person pronoun.
The singular they was also considered bad form in Victorian times when men were considered stronger-minded than women, and he became the default pronoun to cover all people. Though the singular they never entirely went away, especially in spoken form.
The use of the generic he in written and spoken language has decreased since the 1970s. People’s perspectives changed and the English language evolved to include women as equals. It became common to use he or she, or s/he, to alternate he and she in each paragraph, or to rewrite to avoid pronouns. This resulted in often awkward, unwieldy writing.
From that time, the singular they became more common in speech again – which is usually a precursor to a change in the written form. A corpus of spontaneous speech collected in Australia in the 1990s, showed that the singular they had become the most frequently used generic pronoun (rather than generic he or he or she). And a study in 2002 looking at a corpus of British and American newspapers showed a preference for they to be used.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, language experts also began to recognise the singular they (as can be seen under the heading below on reference books). Most people would now use it, even if they think they don’t.
It’s interesting to look at a comparison of the use of the phrases everybody has their with everybody has his in British English books on Google Book’s Ngram Viewer, which looks at the frequency of words in its online corpora of books from 1800 until 2000. Everybody has his was very much in the lead throughout the 1800s and most of the 1900s until the 1980s, showing the preference for the use of his, or possibly his and her. In 1988 the lines cross, and the preference is now their.
Our language will continue to evolve (despite letters to the editor to the contrary), and in years to come no one will think twice about using the singular they in any context.
The grammar rule examples
Most of these shouldn’t be a surprise to you, as it sounds natural to most of us to say them like that in normal speech.
As can be seen in the examples about, not only is the word they part of this discussion, there are also other forms of plural pronouns which can be used to replace singular pronouns.
Aside from than the grammatical rule for using the singular they, the second reason to use the singular they today is to use inclusive language. This is a relatively new way to use the singular they – as I said earlier, language evolves. They is one pronoun of choice for those who don’t identify as either male or female. It is used when the gender of the person in the sentence is knowable (unlike with the grammar rule), but you know that the person identifies with they rather than he or she.
Note: Use a plural verb form with the singular pronoun they (i.e. write they are not they is).
In the reference books
The New Oxford Style Manual, which covers British English (and, without a standardised New Zealand English style guide, also covers New Zealand English), agrees that it is old-fashioned and gender biased to use he in reference to a person of unspecified gender (whether it’s because the writer doesn’t know the gender or the person prefers it that way), and using he or she becomes long-winded if used often. The use of the singular they is useful and acceptable. However, the New Oxford Style Manual does caution that if he or she has been used consistently, then an editor should not impose the singular they without discussion with the writer.
In the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary, sense 4 under the entry for they, reads:
As a third person sing. indefinite pronoun meaning he or she (anyone can come if they want to).
However, it adds a usage note that the use of the singular they is common in spoken English and increasingly so in written English, although is still considered incorrect by some people.
The New Zealand Government’s online Content Design Guidance, says to use ‘gender-neutral pronouns (they, them) by default – especially if you’re writing about a hypothetical person or do not know a person’s pronoun; to respect a person’s pronouns when referring to them; and to use they, them or their – not he, she.’
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is more severe in its opinion, but concedes that the practice of using they, them or their as a singular pronoun ‘has continued into the twenty-first century to the point that […] such constructions are hardly noticed anymore or are not widely felt to lie in the prohibited zone’. And that the ‘process now seems irreversible’.
It doesn’t matter what your opinion is of the singular they, whether about the grammar rule or for inclusive language, the reality is that the singular they is accepted and common. And it’s not just a matter of accepting it, it’s a matter of respect.
If you have written a book in New Zealand English and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of fiction and non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your book is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your book shine, please contact me on: www.clearlingo.co.nz/contact.
I would love to hear from you.
Oxford University Press, (2016). New Oxford Style Manual (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Deverson, T. & Kennedy, G. (Eds.). New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press Butterfield, Jeremy (Ed.). (2015). Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.
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