Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman collegiate professor of English and linguistics at the University of Michigan, where she is also dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
Critics often start from the premise that “they” cannot be singular because a pronoun cannot be singular and plural at the same time. That argument is historically, socially and linguistically wrong. A pronoun most certainly can be singular and plural at the same time, as demonstrated by English’s very own pronoun “you.” And, when we look at the record, we discover the pronoun “they” has been used as a singular generic pronoun, alongside its plural uses, for hundreds of years. Shakespeare and Austen both used singular “they” this way, just as many English speakers do now. “But to expose the former faults of any person,” noted Jane Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” “without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable.”
In other words, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, when the gender of the person is unknown or irrelevant, is nothing new. It’s considered wrong only because 200-plus years of grammarians have told us it is wrong, without solidly justifying that judgment. And whatever ambiguity the singular generic “they” may cause, it is clearly something speakers and writers can manage, as I will explain.
What is relatively new is the use of singular “they” to refer to specific people who identify as nonbinary. This leads to a construction such as, “Alex is spending their senior year in Alaska.” I have heard critics describe this construction as unclear, ambiguous, silly, and/or unnecessary. None of these criticisms hold up well.
Let’s start with the issue of clarity. This argument has been pulled out triumphantly against all uses of singular “they” for years, and it isn’t convincing. First, in many instances, we employ singular “they” exactly because the gender of the antecedent noun (the person we are referring to) is unknown or irrelevant, as in: “A serious runner replaces their shoes every few months.” The ambiguity about the runner’s gender is intentional. And there is usually no ambiguity about number: In a sentence like “My neighbor washes their car every day,” it is unambiguous that I am talking about one person, and that person is my neighbor.
Second, in the cases where there genuinely is ambiguity about the referent of singular “they” (e.g., “I was talking to my mother and her friend, and they said …”), we should rewrite the sentence. That is simply solid writing advice about any potentially confusing sentence. And other pronouns are also susceptible to this kind of ambiguity.
Third, when “they” is a person’s pronoun, the meaning of the pronoun is not ambiguous: It means the person does not identify within “he”/“she” binary and identifies as “they.” And while, right now, it might be grammatically unfamiliar for many to refer back to Alex as “they” in “Alex is spending their senior year in Alaska,” it is far from incomprehensible.
In response, some critics make the case that if there is going to be a nonbinary singular pronoun in English, it would be easier or “more natural” to use a made-up pronoun such as “ze” or “thon.” The pronoun “they” already has enough on its grammatical plate. Fair enough: A pronoun like “ze” is distinctive, and it has seen some use. But it is no more natural to consciously insert a made-up pronoun into the language than it is to consciously expand the usage of an existing pronoun.
And at least right now, singular nonbinary “they” has gotten traction, perhaps because it is already established in grammar as a singular pronoun. Many people who identify as nonbinary identify as “they.” That is not debatable.
So that leaves the question: If this use of singular “they” as a nonbinary singular pronoun is new for you, do you think it’s worth working to adopt into your speech and writing?
The answer comes down to respect. When someone says to you that their pronoun is “they/them/their,” it is respectful to use their pronoun, even if uncomfortable and even if you sometimes make a mistake. If someone says to you, “My name is Xavier, but I go by Jo,” it would be weird at best, and in most cases downright rude, to say, “Well, I think that’s silly and I’m going to call you Xavier,” or to say, “Well, that’s hard for me to remember, so I’m going to call you Andy.”
Someone’s name is part of their identity, and it is respectful to remember and use their name. Someone’s pronouns are also part of their identity, and identities deserve to be honored.
Debates about singular “they” come from a place of deep caring about language and how it is used. The good news is that we can care about clarity, precision and inclusive pronouns all at the same time.
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