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In English grammar, singular they (or epicene they) is the use of the pronoun they and its inflected forms (them, their, etc.) with grammatically singular antecedents, often of indeterminate sex and/or number:
- If anyone claims this seat is theirs, tell them they'll have to show their reservation.
It is commonly assumed that this usage is due to the singular third-person personal pronouns being either gender-specific (he/she, himself/herself, etc.) or inappropriate for referring to people, such as the forms of it. However, historically, the singular they arose when the number of the referent was indefinite, not the gender.
While singular they is often semantically singular, it always takes the same verb forms as plural they; for example, "The person you mentioned, are they coming?", not *"[…] is they coming?". (This is analogous to the pronoun you, which originally was only plural, but eventually came to be used as a singular pronoun as well — first as a mark of respect, and later in all cases — and which uses the same verb forms in all uses.) Further, the plural reflexive form themselves is often used for singular they as well, though many speakers use the singular form themself, especially with semantically singular they. (This development was irrelevant in the case of you, since yourself was already in use as a plural when you developed its singular senses.)
It has been argued that singular they responds as much to the semantic category of genericness as it does to either number or indeterminate gender. Thus, even if the gender is known, it might be used when a generic, as opposed to individuated, real referent is mentioned; for example: “A teenage boy rarely thinks about their future.”
Although prescriptivists have long attacked this usage as being grammatically incorrect, singular they has a centuries-long history of use, and there are examples in the works of several notable authors, the earliest perhaps being some manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales, circa 1400.
- Eche of theym sholde […] make theymselfe redy. — William Caxton, The foure sonnes of Aymon, i. 39, ca. 1489
- There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend — Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3, 1594
- Arise; one knocks. [...] Hark, how they knock! — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 3, 1599
- 'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech. — Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3, 1600–1602
- A person cannot help their birth. — Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1848
Singular they also exists in many early translations of the Bible, for instance in Matthew 18:35:
- So lyke wyse shall my hevenly father do vnto you except ye forgeve with youre hertes eache one to his brother their treaspases. — Tyndale's Bible, 1526
- So likewise shall mine heauenly Father doe vnto you, except ye forgiue from your hearts, eche one to his brother their trespasses. — The Geneva Bible, 1587
- So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses. — King James Bible, 1611
In the example from Hamlet, Shakespeare used singular they for a referent of indefinite number (it refers both to a mother, namely Hamlet's mother, and to mothers in general) even though the gender cannot be in doubt. He would not have used it if the referent had been an identifiable person, such as the mother of Hamlet. Similarly, the example from The Comedy of Errors also involves indefinite number. Romeo has two lines between the friar's "one knocks" and "how they knock", which reduces the value of that example.
Singular they retains this implication of indefinite reference, and is most commonly used with indefinite referents such as someone, anyone, everyone, and no one. The motivation for this can be clearly seen in:
- I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly. — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814
- Caesar: No, Cleopatra. No man goes to battle to be killed.
- Cleopatra: But they do get killed.
- — George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra, 1901
Few people today would easily use he where Shaw used they, but according to traditional grammar, phrases like no man and everybody are grammatically singular, and therefore cannot have plural pronominal coreferents. Semantically, however, they refers to the men who are killed, just as Austen's singular everybody refers to the people who get married.
The use of masculine generic nouns and pronouns in written and spoken language has decreased since the 1960s (Pauwels 2003, p. 563). In a corpus of spontaneous speech collected in Australia in the 1990s, singular they had become the most frequently used generic pronoun (op. cit., p. 564). The increased usage of singular they may be at least partly due to an increasing desire for gender-neutral language; while writers a hundred years ago might have had no qualm using he with a referent of indeterminate gender, writers today often feel uncomfortable with this. One solution in formal writing has often been to write he or she, or something similar, but this is condemned as awkward when used excessively (Fowler 1992, p. 257), overly politically correct, or both.
In certain contexts, singular they may sound less obstructive and more natural than generic he, or he or she; Huddleston and Pullum (2005, p. 104) give the following example:
- Nobody in their right mind would do a thing like that.
The alternative formulation ("Nobody in his right mind […]") "now seems inappropriate to a large proportion of speakers, who systematically avoid the use of he in such contexts" (loc. cit.).
Today, grammar and usage guides that have accepted singular they state that singular they can only be used to refer to an indeterminate person, but not to a person identified as a particular individual, even if that person's gender is unknown. For example, one might say "A person might find themself in a fix" but not *"Dr. Brown might find themself in a fix." In the latter case, the most usual thing to do is to recast the sentence in the plural ("Doctors might find themselves […]"), second person ("If you're a doctor, you might find yourself […]"), or sometimes reflexive ("One might find oneself […]"). Singular they is occasionally used to refer to an indeterminate person whose gender is known, as in "No mother should be forced to testify against their child", or two of the three Shakespeare quotations above.
However, this usage is controversial. Some grammarians (e.g., Fowler 1992, pp. 300–301) continue to view singular they as grammatically inconsistent, and recommend either recasting in the plural or avoiding the pronoun altogether. Others say that there is no sufficient reason not to extend singular they to include specific people of unknown gender, as well as to transgender or intersexual people who do not identify exclusively with one gender or the other. As discussed in detail at the references and external links below, current debate relates to wider questions of political correctness and equal rights. The extent to which language influences thought may also be an important factor.
Australia is one of the few places in the English-speaking world to officially sanction its use in publishing and academic contexts. In particular, the Australian Government officially encourages its use in publications as a gender-neutral alternative to "he or she".
While usage is now widespread in most circles in terms of gender-indeterminate antecedents, usage of singular they with gender-determinate antecedents is not overly common, and is still seen by most grammarians as problematic, as it can cause confusion; in the case of the sentence "A man said they needed to use my phone" it is hard to see that "they" refers to the man — it might just as easily refer to a third party. One study indicated that when used with a gender-determinate antecedent, reading time of singular they increases significantly, indicating that use in this situation can be confusing. In these situations, most style guides recommend seeking an alternative to avoid confusion.
For a variety of approaches to this problem as used in other modern languages, see Gender-neutral pronoun.
- ^ Newman, Michael Epicene pronouns : the linguistics of a prescriptive problem New York : Garland, 1997.
- ^ Newman, Michael 1997 "What can pronouns tell us? A case study of English epicenes." Studies in language 22:22, 353-389.
- ^ Newman, Michael Epicene pronouns : the linguistics of a prescriptive problem New York : Garland, 1997.
- ^ "themselves" Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED Online Oxford University Press. Accessed June 11, 2006.
- ^ Leman, Wayne. "singular "they" in English Bibles", Better Bibles Blog, 2006-09-10. Retrieved on 2006-09-17.
- ^ Matossian, Lou Ann. Burglars, Babysitters, and Persons: A Sociolinguistic Study of Generic Pronoun Usage in Philadelphia and Minneapolis. University of Pennsylvania, 1997  accessed 10 Jun 2006.
- ^ American Heritage Dictionary, 1992; and Chicago Manual of Style, 1993; cited in Laura Madson and Robert Hessling, "Readers' Perceptions of Four Alternatives to Masculine Generic Pronouns", Journal of Social Psychology 141.1 (February 2001): 156–158. See also Baranowski 2002.
- ^ Amy Warenda, "They", Writing across the Curriculum 4 (April 1993): 89–97 (URL accessed September 17, 2006)
- ^ Juliane Schwarz of the University of Bristol,  (URL accessed June 10, 2005); see also Baranowski 2002.
- ^ Some examples: Federation Press Style Guide for use in preparation of book manuscripts; Australian Guide to Legal Citation
- ^ Julie Foertsch and Morton Ann Gernsbacher, "In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic He?" Psychological Science 8.2 (March 1997): 106–111. (URL accessed June 10, 2006)
- Baranowski, M. "Current usage of the epicene pronoun in written English." Journal of Sociolinguistics 6.3 (August 2002): 378–397.
- Fowler, Henry Ramsey; Jane E. Aaron (1992). The Little, Brown Handbook, 5th edn., HarperCollins. ISBN 0-673-52132-X.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002). “Singular pronouns denoting humans without specification of sex,”, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, ch. 5, §17.2.4, pp. 491–5. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Geoffrey K. Pullum (2005). A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 103–105. ISBN 0-521-84837-7.
- Jespersen, Otto (1894). Progress in Language, with Special Reference to English. New York: Macmillan.
- Pauwels, Anne (2003). "Linguistic sexism and feminist linguistic activism". Chapter 24 in The Handbook of Language and Gender, edited by Janet Holmes and Miriam Meyerhoff. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-22502-1.
- Simpson, John; Edmund Weiner (1989). The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn., Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-861186-2.
- Mark Balhorn (2004). "The Rise of Epicene They". Journal of English Linguistics 32 (2): 79–104. DOI:10.1177/0075424204265824.
- Disputed English grammar
- Gender-neutral pronoun
- Generic you
- Grammatical gender
- The Singular "They"
- Singular They and Jane Austen
- Gender Neutral Pronoun FAQ on Singular They
- Steven Pinker on the English singular "their" construction
- The Mavens' Word of the Day — they (singular)
- Regender can translate webpages to use the gender-neutral singular "they".
- Grammar myths debunked Geoff Pullum summarized very briefly indeed, on the occasion of the publication of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. This myth gets but three short sentences.
- Anyone who had a heart (would know their own language) by Geoff Pullum. Transcript of a radio talk. This does not dodge technical issues, but it is still very accessible.
- Everyone at The Times agrees ... no they don't Geoff Pullum on prescriptivism from the (London) Times.
- Examples of singular "their" etc. from the OED and elsewhere