Can They Be a Singular Pronoun?
In the world of grammar nerds, few topics have sparked more debate than the use of singular they. Unlike some other languages, English lacks a pronoun for speaking about a person when their (or, um, his or her) gender is unknown. This is awkward in discussing hypothetical situations and when referring to people who don’t identify as male or female.
As there’s no clear rule, writers have used a variety of terms and strategies: he or she, he/she, s/he, always using he, always using she, alternating between he and she. Then there are new gender-neutral words that haven’t caught on like ze or xe.
But it hasn’t always been like this. In fact, the singular use of they was common and accepted up until the nineteenth century. When nineteenth-century writers rejected this, they did so with the easy confidence of patriarchy, using he as a gender-neutral pronoun. In recent years, this choice has fallen out of favor, though there’s less agreement on what to use instead.
Singular They Is Gaining Traction . . . Sort of
While it’s far from being universally accepted, the use of singular they has been gaining popularity in recent years. Take this National Public Radio headline: “Everyone Uses Singular ‘They,’ Whether They Realize It or Not.” Respected publications like The Washington Post have recently decided in favor of using singular they. However, no major style guide has (fully) jumped on board yet.
In an American Psychological Association blog post, the author states that it’s acceptable to use singular they only when referring to a person who doesn’t identify with a particular gender. According to Chelsea Lee: “APA supports the choice of communities to determine their own descriptors. Thus, when transgender and gender nonconforming people (including agender, genderqueer, and other communities) use the singular they as their pronoun, writers should likewise use the singular they when writing about them.”
But in other situations, APA deems singular they as too informal. Instead, the guide recommends making sentences plural when possible (“Participants indicated their preferences”) or using he or she or she or he, though, confusingly, APA recommends against “overuse” of these constructions.
The Chicago Manual of Style agrees with APA that singular they isn’t acceptable for formal writing but is acceptable for use with people who don’t identify as male or female. Instead of using the dreaded singular they, the sixteenth edition of CMOS lists nine (yes, nine) ways of avoiding it in section 5.225.
With the seventeenth edition of the style guide coming out in fall 2017, here’s what CMOS has to say: “CMOS 17 does not prohibit the use of singular they as a substitute for the generic he in formal writing, but recommends avoiding it, offering various other ways to achieve bias-free language.”
The Modern Language Association Handbook is the closest to accepting singular they. In fact, MLA doesn’t address the topic at all. Unlike some other style guides, MLA leaves the finer points of grammar to the writer’s discretion, so this omission isn’t particularly surprising.
The recently released Associated Press Stylebook also now accepts use of singular they when discussing people who don’t identify with a gender, though it warns that the writer needs to make this usage clear. Like CMOS, the guide also leaves a bit of wiggle room if you want to avoid “he or she” constructions: “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable.”
The bottom line is that you can feel confident using singular they when referring to people who don’t identify as male or female. However, proceed with caution when using this construction in other situations.
If you feel passionately about the use of singular they, you may want to discuss this choice with your professor/editor/supervisor before submitting your work. There’s a chance they (or he or she) may feel equally passionate about singular/plural agreement.
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