A few weeks ago when I wrote the post about personal pronouns, I thought about singular they. I was going to include information about it in that post, but then I realised that it’s actually a pretty big topic, so it really deserved its own post. So, that’s what this post is all about.
What is singular they?
In fancy linguistic terms, singular they is called an epicene third-person singular personal pronoun. Now, if you’re not a language nerd like me, then that may look like a heap of jargon. Let’s break it down into something meaningful:
- Epicene = gender-neutral
- Third-person = someone who isn’t the speaker/writer nor the listener/reader (he, she, it, they)
- Singular = refers to one thing
- Personal = refers to a person or living thing
- Pronoun = a word that replaces a noun phrase
So basically, it’s just a word that refers to one person who isn’t the one communicating or receiving that communication. It’s also gender-neutral, so that means it can be used to refer to people with different genders or used when mentioning someone’s gender isn’t important.
What’s the problem with using singular they?
From my perspective as a descriptivist, there is never anything wrong with the way we use language. Language is merely a tool we use to communicate and share ideas, so while their are societal “rules” we must follow (for example spelling and grammar when writing), outside of that, language use can never be wrong.
In certain circles, however, using singular they is apparently the worst thing someone could possibly do! Some people might consider it a language sin. Why? Because they’re probably prescriptivists stuck in their own ways and think that language use must conform to a certain set of rules and that these rules can never be changed. (News flash: language is ever-changing, and it’s completely normal for it to change) These people think that we should only use he, she, and it (or him, her, and it) to refer to singular people and living things in the third-person. They believe that using they is only allowed when referring to more than one thing.
But, if I’m being honest, language changes all the time. Heck! We even do exactly the same thing with “you” that we do when using singular they! “You” can refer to both one person and two or more people depending on the situation. If I was talking one-on-one with someone, I could say “do you want to radically change your life today?” and I’d be using “you” in the singular to refer to that one person. Likewise, if I was a motivational speaker on stage talking to thousands of people, I could say exactly the same thing yet I’d be using “you” in the plural to refer to everyone in the audience.
So, really, we can use “they” in a similar way to refer to both one person or more than one person when we need to. It’s really not that different from how we use “you”, so I’m not sure what the big deal is. Those prescriptivists probably don’t like language change and try to police people’s language. Don’t be like them! Come and join the cool kids who embrace language change and think it’s a positive thing! ?
Why should I use singular they?
Now that we’ve established that there’s really nothing wrong with using singular they and that it should actually be celebrated as innovative language use, let’s talk about why you might want to use it in your own communication. There are three main reasons to use singular they:
- It’s super easy to use.
- It’s great to use when someone’s gender isn’t important, known, or relevant.
- Some people’s pronoun is they rather than he or she.
As we’ll find out below, using singular they is really super easy and simple to use. In fact, you probably already use it without even realising it. I can bet that no matter how much you don’t like using singular they or you cringe every time it’s used, you have definitely used it before in your own speech without realising it.
Have you ever needed to tell someone something that happened but you didn’t know the gender of a person in the story or it wasn’t relevant so you didn’t highlight it? You would have used they instead of he or she. Trust me on this one — I don’t need to have a secret microphone attached to you recording everything you say to know that this situation has happened to you before! ?
And lastly, there has been a shift recently in how some people, particularly from the LGBTQIA+ community, want others to use particular pronouns to refer to them. Some people request that others refer to them as they instead of he or she. This is another perfect time to use singular they. It’s really not that hard to change the way you talk to accommodate others’ needs.
How do I use singular they in my own communication?
Using singular they is super duper easy to do. In fact, you probably already do it and you don’t even realise it! Imagine you wake up in the morning and you look out the window and see someone in a chicken suit doing the chicken dance in your front garden! Before you have time to even process the absurdity of this, this person runs off into the foggy mist cackling bok bok b’geeeeerk! (Okay, full disclosure: I just made that up, but I’m sure someone’s had this experience, right? ?).
So, how would you describe that to your friend? Would you say this?
- “You’d never believe what happened to me this morning! I was getting ready for work and opened up the curtains to find someone in a full on chicken costume doing the chicken dance in my front garden! Before I could get out the front door to shake my fist at him or her and yell “you scoundrel — get off my property”, he or she ran off into the foggy mist cackling bok bok b’geeeeerk! Anyway, how was your morning?”
Now, would you really say “him or her” and “he or she” in this situation? No, you wouldn’t. I don’t care how adamant you are, you would NEVER say that. You would always say “them” and “they”. Why? Because it’s so much easier, you don’t know the person’s gender, and their gender is actually irrelevant to the story. (See! I just used singular they then instead of saying “his or her gender”!)
So the moral of the story is this: you probably already use singular they in your own communication. If you don’t, the easiest way to do this is to:
- Identify he or she (or change the noun phrase into the pronouns he or she)
- Change it to they when appropriate
It’s as simple as that. Let’s take a look at an example.
- Original: The child really likes to read books at night even when her parents tell her not to.
- Noun phrase: the child. Pronoun: her
- The child changes to they. Her changes to their and them.
- Re-written sentence: They really like to read books at night even when their parents tell them not to.
Keep in mind that you generally also need to change the verb ending as well to grammatically align to the pronoun. For example she likes changes to they like.
This week’s challenge
So, this week’s challenge is to pay attention to the third-person pronouns (he, she, it, and they) you use and decide whether using they would be more appropriate. Whenever someone’s gender isn’t important, known, or relevant to the topic, I’d urge you to consider using they instead. It makes your communication more inclusive, which will make people want to engage with your content more.