In this post, I want to talk about an issue that has been troubling me for as long as I have been writing this blog. Should I be using the singular they? That is, should I be using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for a grammatically singular antecedent? In general, I have not done so, but trying to fix this sentence from a recent post forced me to revisit that policy:
An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article.
My usual way to circumvent this issue has been to use the plural. But that solution—‘doctoral students attempting their first articles’—worked dismally here. Making the whole sentence plural sounded daft, and making only the second half plural upset the comparison. So I left it as it was and made a note to make a more systematic decision later (and to make it the topic of a post).
People with much more expertise can give you actual reasons for using the singular they without compunction; I’ll include some helpful links at the end of this post. I’m only going to give my reflections:
1. It’s necessary. We need a gender-neutral pronoun in order to refer to a singular antecedent without specifying gender. The phrase that I often need to use in my blog writing is some variant of ‘When a student shows me their writing …’. Up till now, I have edited such sentences to read ‘When students show me their writing …’. While this is a solution of sorts, I’ve never particularly liked it; I want to be talking about a single generic student, not a bunch of students.
2. It’s correct. Despite what you may have heard, it’s not incorrect to use the singular they. The decision is ultimately a judgment call: Should we use the singular they or might it be disturbing to our readers? Will those readers recognize what we are doing? Might they find it incorrect or excessively informal? My main concern about adopting the singular they in this blog has been one about reception; if enough people believe it to be wrong, I’ve worried that it might be an unnecessary distraction. I’m ready now to let that worry go.
3. It’s beneficial. Using the singular they solves a real problem and gives us important flexibility in the way we reference gender. We should do more than just say that he can’t be a generic pronoun. Even saying he or she—which is obviously stylistically insupportable—makes it seem unduly important that we identify people by gender. Given our understanding of the complex ways that we perform and present gender, it seems entirely desirable to enrich our capacity to leave gender binaries out of places where they are irrelevant. Of course, there are those who argue for an entirely new gender-neutral pronoun, one which could refer to a specific person without identifying gender. Using the singular they doesn’t obviate this perceived need for a gender-neutral pronoun, but it does help. It may be that we will eventually say ‘Sam came to my office and showed me their writing …’ as a way of making Sam’s relationship to traditional gender categories irrelevant. Or it could be that a newly coined gender-neutral pronoun will emerge and take root. In the meantime, it is still beneficial to be able to use the singular they to refer to singular generic nouns and indefinite pronouns.
4. Finally, I can if I want to. If I see this practice as necessary and correct and beneficial, why not do it? In particular, why not do it in this space where I’m answerable only to myself? In the unlikely event that anyone cares enough to judge this decision, it won’t matter. I can continue to make decisions about this issue in other contexts as I wish. And I will certainly continue to teach this issue in such a way that students are aware of a range of opinions and practices. But if I think this usage is desirable and the main impediment is that it may ‘seem wrong’ to some, I think it behooves me to follow my inclinations.
So I’m making it official—this blog will use the singular they, as needed. I totally get that this is immaterial to all of you, but making the decision is a weight off my mind. If you are still troubled by this issue, I suggest having a look at the resources below. And, if you only have time for one, I recommend the first: Tom Freeman does an excellent job explaining the full range of associated issues on his terrific editing blog, Stroppy Editor.
Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”, Stroppy Editor
Singular ‘They,’ Again, Lingua Franca (Anne Curzan)
Epicene ‘they’ is gaining greater acceptance, Copyediting (Mark Allen)
There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There, Lingua Franca (Ben Yagoda)
Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’, Sentence First
Dogma vs. Evidence: Singular They, Lingua Franca (Geoffrey Pullum)
Thank you so much for addressing an issue with which we, as thoughtful writers and writing teachers, all struggle. I plan to share your post, as well as the others you reference here, with both my students and the writing teachers I train at Rice.
Good on you. I use the singular they as I hate the he/she thing, or even worse books that change gender every other chapter. It’s a great way to refer to anonymous participants.
Your use of the name Sam in your example is interesting; is it short for Samantha or Samuel? Love that it could be either, but, perhaps, if you are referring to a particular person, and you want them to know it is they to whom you are referring, he/she may be more appropriate.
Interesting. Very difficult point. I still can’t come to a final decision on this. Using “he” is old-fashioned and conservative, “she” still sounds forced and pedantic to me, and “they” doesn’t really seem to fit in formal English, but maybe it’s the best option.
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Why not this solution?
An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different from a new doctoral student attempting a first article.
Thanks, that definitely works in that instance. And often solution-through-omission works with pronoun problems. But I wanted a more consistent solution, and ultimately I wanted to endorse the respectability of the singular they!
This came up very recently for me again within the text I was writing. My editor pointed its use to me, which I read through again as necessary. You make excellent points for its use.
Yes, I teach it to my students as the gender-neutral third person singular.
“I totally get that this is immaterial to all of you….” Not at all! It’s one of the most important posts you’ve written here. Thanks for helping us, who were on the fence, to make up our mind.
This is all well & good, especially in your specific examples. How do we address these issues when referring to a person, verbally? Would we say… “Bob is handling that, check with them (or they or their)” ? It isn’t how I was taught to speak. It certainly sounds like horrible grammar to me. I know I and many of my friends are having a really tough time. This blog appears to be of a more academic forum, but many of us regular folks are struggling. We want to be supportive, but the solutions just “seem” weird to us. I think we need a new singular gender neutral pronoun.
Thanks for your comment. It’s true that I’m primarily interested in academic writing; as such, I wish to use the singular ‘they’ with generics nouns and indefinite pronouns. Using ‘they’ in this way is different than what you descibe, i.e., different than using it to refer to any individual, regardless of gender. If you know ‘Bob’ and ‘he’–like many others–doesn’t mind being identified by a gender-specific pronoun, you don’t have a problem. If Bob doesn’t wish to be so identified, we simply need to honour their wishes as best we can within the limitations of our language.
I struggle with this too. “They” is the best, most practical choice in many cases. When I use it, though, I worry that people think I’m doing so out of ignorance … which is a problem for an editor.
Thanks. Fear of looking like I didn’t know any better certainly held me back for a long time! And it’s way easier for a blogger than an editor, so I figured I should take a stand. The more people who treat this practical choice as acceptable, the more likely it is to become widely accepted.
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Every time someone suggests some new gender-neutral pronoun, it’s something difficult to remember and just too darned weird to say, like one of those new pharmaceutical names we could all do without. I’ve changed my ways and started using “they” as a singular pronoun.
The problem here isn’t the pronoun. The problem is that it’s a bad sentence that needs to be rewritten.
First off, one thing is “different from” another thing (or “different to,” if you’re writing British English), but no thing is “different than” another thing.
Second, the writer apparently wants to contrast the work of a Harvard academic to the work of a doctoral student, but has written, instead, a comparison of “something” to “a new doctoral student.” What has to happen is that the comparison has to be put back on track, after which the need for pronouns evaporates:
“An established Harvard academic completing a book is engaged in a task that is very different from the work of a new doctoral student who is drafting a first article.”