Can “they” be used for just one person?

Or: everything you wanted to know about pronouns but were afraid to ask

So, can you use the word “they” to refer to just one person?

I know grammar is something most people only think about when playing Mad Libs, but pronoun use is a topic that’s been debated a lot lately, along with trans rights and the whole idea of gender.

In this column, I’m just going to focus on grammar— I’m not going to get into the political side. Since I’ve been teaching English for 8 years, in both the US and Europe, I’m very familiar with this question, as I’ve had to explain this topic a lot in my own classes. I have a couple of points about this, and I’ll try to keep it light on the grammar terms!

So. Can “they” be a used as a singular pronoun? Is it grammatical? Is it people trying to change the language for political reasons? Let’s find out.

The first thing to remember is:

  1. Language evolves over time.

English has been around for about 1,400 years, and it’s changed a lot from Old English to Modern English. One of the clearest ways to see how much it has changed is with another pronoun: thou.

Shakespeare used thou and thy, but by the 17th century, those faded away as they fell out of use. Now, thou mainly associated with the King James version of the Bible. Also, it’s worth noting that when English lost thou, the language lost its plural you. That’s why forms like y’all, youse, and yinz evolved. To make the distinction when we’re talking to one person or to a group.

2. Politics affects language.

Losing thou happened by accident, but there are times when the language was changed on purpose. For example, the deliberate spelling differences in American English versus British English. When Noah Webster was compiling his first dictionary, he wanted to set the language spoken in America apart from the language in England, as well as reform spelling.

That’s why words like color/colour, favorite/favourite, travelled/ travelled, and realize/realise look different. While this is spelling, not grammar, it still shows that politics and ideology can change a language.

2. 1/2. Geography affects grammar.  

If your argument is: it’s too confusing to use “they” to refer to just one person… using singular and plural nouns is already a little confusing in English. This is a little tricky, but stay with me!

Pop quiz! Which is correct:

 

Sorry, trick question. Depending on where you are: both are grammatically correct. Which is weird, and one grammatical difference between the US and the UK: collective nouns. Collective nouns means a group of people, like sports teams, musical groups and city councils. In Britain, collective nouns get treated as a plural, because there’s many people. In the US, though, collective nouns are treated as one single thing: one group.

Weird, huh? Try explaining that to a group of English students! Which brings me to my next point…

3. There’s no “standard” English

Unlike French, with its Académie française, there is no academy of English, no worldwide standard for grammar, spelling, vocabulary or even pronunciation. Saying you’re gonna watch football while eating chips, for example, can mean different things in different countries.

And it’s easy to see why there’s no standard. English may have come from England, but the American variety is a lot more common- thanks to things like movies and music.

Which is why we have to rely on other types of standards, like the stylebooks used by the media. For example, the AP style guide adopted “they” as a singular pronoun in 2017.

I’ve also heard the argument that “he” can be used as a gender neutral pronoun, like how “man” can be used for “people in general.” There’s a couple of problems with that, however.

Using “he” as gender neutral is an idea that goes back to Middle English. But since then, English has changed a lot, and the pronoun “he” is now used to refer to a man. There’s been a push to have more gender neutral words in English: humankind for mankind, for example. Not to mention jobs, like police officer for policeman, and firefighter for fireman.

From the book An Introduction to Early Modern English by Terttu Nevalainen.

4. People use they for one person… without being told or ordered by anyone. And this is important.

I’m not going to get into a descriptive versus prescriptive debate about grammar. But the fact remains: authors from Chaucer in the 1300s to William Shakespeare to George Orwell have used “they” as a singular pronoun.

People already use “they” to refer to one person, when we don’t know who that person is, and when we don’t know the person’s gender. It’s too clunky and unnatural to say he or she. Look at these sentences:

There’s also the pronoun “one,” but that is formal and fairly impersonal.

No native speaker would actually say sentences 2 or 3. That doesn’t sound natural. Other general pronouns, like everyone, anyone, anybody, are going to have the same problems with sounding awkward.

5. It isn’t used for people

Well, what about the pronoun “it?” That’s singular, right? Except there’s a huge difference in how people use “it” as opposed to he, she or they.

For one thing, a lot of people use “he or she” to refer to their pets— myself included. Cars and boats are sometimes referred to with “she” as well. The only time we use “it” for people is for infants who aren’t born yet. Like in these signs:

And that’s why it’s NEVER been common to refer to people as “it.” And why it’s so insulting: “It” is only for things or objects. I mean, if pets get personal pronouns, and sometimes even cars and boats… there’s no way we can justify using “it” for a person.

Like this quote from the movie Frankenstein: when we use “it” for people, it’s only for monsters.

6. He and she isn’t about sex or gender

So, back to “they.” Usually, we rely on what a person looks like to decide if we’re going to use “he or she.” Unless we’re doctors, or working in medicine, there’s no real reason for anyone to ask to any questions about a stranger’s biological sex.

And as Contrapoints made clear in her video about pronouns: she/he pronouns predate any ideas about biological sex based on chromosomes.

Further, we’re ok with the biological sex not matching perfectly with the pronoun. For example, Varys the eunuch in Game of Thrones, or Ariel from the Little Mermaid.

We know to call Ariel “she” and Varys “he.” There’s no debate about gender or biology here. While these are fictional characters, the same idea is true in real life. We rely on what a person looks like to decide if we refer to them as he or she. When it’s unclear, most people err on the cautious side: asking, or avoiding using pronouns.

Also, there are people who fall outside the traditional category of men and women. Aside from trans people, there are people who are born intersex— with chromosomes that aren’t XX or XY.

This is why insisting that “he and she” must refer to biological sex doesn’t make sense. English pronouns predate gene discovery by centuries, and there’s plenty of times we use he and she to refer to people who don’t perfectly fit into the male/female binary.

When we do try to police people’s gender, it gets awkward or dangerous very quickly— not to mention a huge invasion of privacy.

Besides, there’s other times when the grammar may not match up perfectly to biology. For example, the phrase “we’re pregnant!”

If your friend tells you that, and your first reaction to that sentence is to say, you’re probably both not pregnant… you fail. The best answer is, Congrats!

I mean, you can choose to point out that only one person in the couple is biologically pregnant. But… why?

“We” can be used by one person referring to a group. There’s the “royal we,” the “editorial we” used in newspapers, and the “we” couples use to talk when making joint plans.

 

 

There’s other times when ignoring pronouns is rude: adoption and mixed families. If you’ve adopted a child, you still refer to the child as “yours” even if they’re not your biological child. Same things goes with step children. Making a distinction between “your” children and your partner’s children is going to lead to problems. Likewise, asking  “are those your children?” by a nosy neighbor or relative is pretty rude. Unless you’re a lawyer talking about adoption issues or a doctor asking about risks for hereditary disease, there’s no real need to ask those types of questions.

Especially as a teacher. There’s no way I can ask my students about their biological sex. That’s unprofessional, creepy and crosses so many boundaries. I would never, ever get that personal with my students.

One other thing: this is not a new topic. When researching this, I found this article from 1975 about this idea… and it refers to people arguing about “they” since the 1800s. This is not a new idea— they as a singular pronoun has been a long time coming in English.

 

7. Actual grammar rule: pronouns replace nouns.

Now, I am going to break out a grammar point: pronouns replace nouns. Words like he, she, it, they and we take the place of names so we don’t have to repeat a name constantly. Keep this in mind for the next point.

Sometimes people ask us to call them something. Maybe they outgrew a childhood nickname. Maybe they’re married and changed their last name. Maybe it’s a new title, like Dr.

Some people use a different name when learning a language- I’m called Ewelina in my Polish classes, not Evelyn. I’ve also had my Polish students use the English versions of their names in class: Michael for Michał, or Luke for Łukasz. My Chinese students sometimes adopt American names because their Chinese ones are difficult for Americans to pronouns.

People can pick their names. When someone asks you to call them something, or not to use a certain name, it’s pretty insulting to ignore what they want. So, we have this social standard with respecting people’s names.

Why not pronouns?

Insisting that it sounds “weird” to use they as a singular pronoun is ignoring how English uses pronouns in general. You and y’all, the royal we and how families refer to our adopted and foster children: there are more exceptions than rules in English.

To wrap up: there aren’t any good arguments against using “they” as a singular pronoun. There’s grammatical reasons for it, historical basis for, and moreover… it’s the decent thing to do.

Even the idea that it’s somehow “confusing” isn’t a good argument. There’s plenty of confusing things in English that aren’t as controversial as this topic. For example, referring to women not just by married name, but as “Mrs John Smith.” It may have been tradition, but it makes any kind of research incredibly difficult. Even not having a plural you. Is youse, ya’ll, or yinze better?

Language is changing and evolving, which is what makes studying language so fascinating yet so confusing at times. Chaucer used they as a singular pronoun, and so did Shakespeare. and you should too.

Thanks for reading! I’ve got links to all the research I’ve done.

Sources:

About thou:

http://www2.nau.edu/~eng121-c/politenessin%20AME.htm

https://www.thoughtco.com/second-person-pronouns-1691931

Collective nouns:

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/grammar/matching-verbs-to-collective-nouns

AP style guide:

https://blog.ap.org/products-and-services/making-a-case-for-a-singular-they

Shakespeare using they:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002748.html

A pile of other examples:

http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/grammar/sing_they_sli.pdf

Here is the video version of this column: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guSXyqmqIzE

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