Use of "they" as a singular pronoun

There's a long discussion started in Hell about the use of pronouns, started because the callee objected to me specifically, but I wasn't the only one, using "they" to describe the Shipmate currently called to Hell, who had not identified themselves as preferring any pronouns at that stage.

I bothered to check Fowler's English Usage (dates from 1926), as I have it on the bookshelf, and found a diatribe against the singular use of they, with screeds of examples to demonstrate its evilness. The entry rather felt like a prescriptive grammarian trying to enforce the proscription of a use that was and has been usual. On the Hell thread, there has been much discussion as to how long they has been used as a singular pronoun, with suggestions of several centuries.

I also wonder if this prescriptiveness is more American English than English English, having some time ago got into an argument about using "they" to describe my companion in some Mystery Worship reports. Each incidence was edited to "he" by the editor, who refused to publish a report with they as a singular pronoun. In fact, my companion was my daughter who prefers they/them pronouns.

So is it wrong to use they as a single person pronoun? Is this more proscribed in American English? What do we do if someone gives as their preferred pronouns as they/them rather than he/him or she/her? Is it appropriate to use they when we are not sure of the preferred pronouns of the person we are referencing?
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Comments

  • I have always used "they" as an alternative to the cumbersome "he or she" when talking about an unspecified person. "When the teacher sets up this demonstration, they should be careful to wear gloves."
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    I use they as a singular pronoun quite often these days. It does not feel as awkward as it uses to and is actually smoother than he/she or s/he. There are also individuals who have adopted they as their preferred pronoun. I always honour that preference.
  • Martin54Martin54 Shipmate
    Likewise.
  • Leorning CnihtLeorning Cniht Shipmate
    edited May 14
    So is it wrong to use they as a single person pronoun?

    I was taught, at school, to use "he" as the generic singular pronoun. My school was staffed by rather stuffy grammarians, and even back then, we were aware that this was a rather stuffy use.

    I switched to singular 'they' some time ago. Like @TurquoiseTastic and @Caissa, I've always found the various (s)he constructions cumbersome, and of course they don't include people who don't identify with gendered pronouns. This latter concern has only risen to prominence in recent years, but it's no less genuine for that. (I could make a reasonable case that stuffy Victorian "he" is a gender-neutral pronoun that includes people who use all kinds of pronouns, but, stipulating that technically true is the best kind of true, it's not going to be read that way by a lot of people.)

    My standard is now to use "they" unless I know the gender and/or pronouns of the specific individual I'm mentioning.
  • amyboamybo Shipmate
    I was taught to use he/she (not cumbersome at all!) instead of he, and that they was improper. I really stuck to it and only used "they" begrudgingly, until I had the opportunity to hear a talk from a young non-binary person who preferred they/them. They really sank it home for me that a person's lived truth is way more important than my Proper Grammar. And then I realized I use "they" in casual speech already. Now when I hear someone refusing to use they/them pronouns, I wonder if it's a microaggression against transgender and non-binary people. (My pronouns are she/her.)
  • HuiaHuia Shipmate
    edited May 14
    I like your sentence about the person's lived experience being more important than your proper grammar. I do find it a challenge, but I think it's important,

    she/her
  • TelfordTelford Shipmate
    I see nothing wrong in describing someone as a 'they'
  • BoogieBoogie Shipmate
    s/he
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    So is it wrong to use they as a single person pronoun? Is this more proscribed in American English? What do we do if someone gives as their preferred pronouns as they/them rather than he/him or she/her? Is it appropriate to use they when we are not sure of the preferred pronouns of the person we are referencing?
    This American has been hearing and using “they” as a singular or indeterminate pronoun—“Someone’s at the door.” “What do they want?”—all of my 60 years. In school, we were taught to use he/him/his if we didn’t know the gender, and we did so when we were writing something for school. But in conversation, “they” was always common.

    The use of “they” for someone non-binary who may prefer those pronouns is, of course, more recent, and I’ll readily admit that after 6 decades, it doesn’t always come easily to me. But I completely agree with @amybo that another person’s lived experience is more important than Proper Grammar, or for that matter, my comfort or ease.

  • Bishops FingerBishops Finger Shipmate
    edited May 14
    Telford wrote: »
    I see nothing wrong in describing someone as a 'they'

    /pedant alert/

    I see what you mean, but the word *they* is a pronoun, not a noun:

    1.
    used to refer to two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified.
    "the two men could get life sentences if they are convicted"
    2.
    used to refer to a person of unspecified gender.
    "ask a friend if they could help"

    (Definitions from Oxford Languages)

  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    edited May 14
    Boogie wrote: »
    s/he
    But how would you say that if you were speaking or reading?

  • Unless there's an invented term that catches on, it's going to be "they".

    My ESL* father used the word "buddy" frequently for everyone who might be he/she/they. Since 1950-something, when I became aware. "What's buddy doing" = "what are they doing". I doubt it sounds reasonable to anyone.

    *ESL- English as a second language. Now often EAL- English as an additional language.
  • BoogieBoogie Shipmate
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    Boogie wrote: »
    s/he
    But how would you say that if you were speaking or reading?

    Fine for reading and writing, not speaking.
  • GarasuGarasu Shipmate
    I note that we've been using the second person plural to stand for the second person singular since at least the seventeenth century, so...
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    edited May 14
    Boogie wrote: »
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    Boogie wrote: »
    s/he
    But how would you say that if you were speaking or reading?

    Fine for reading and writing, not speaking.
    Perhaps. Maybe I’m odd, or more odd than I already knew, but I’m a very auditory person, even when I’m reading, so I’d get hung up on that. For example, I “hear” posts on the Ship in the voices that my imagination provides for various Shipmates. Ditto with letters or emails—I “hear” them in the voice of the person they’re from.

    And yes, I realize I just admitted I hear voices. Oh well.

  • Amanda B ReckondwythAmanda B Reckondwyth Mystery Worship Editor
    Garasu wrote: »
    I note that we've been using the second person plural to stand for the second person singular since at least the seventeenth century, so...

    Yes, "y'all" can mean one person or a crowd of people.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    edited May 14
    Garasu wrote: »
    I note that we've been using the second person plural to stand for the second person singular since at least the seventeenth century, so...

    Yes, "y'all" can mean one person or a crowd of people.
    :lol:

    But, no. At least in the American South, “y’all” is never used when addressing one person, except in TV and the movies. There’s singular “you” and plural “y’all.”

    And then there’s “all y’all,” meaning “every last one of you.” :wink:

  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    Boogie wrote: »
    s/he

    But it gets much less neat when you go on to him/her and his/her.
  • Raptor EyeRaptor Eye Shipmate
    Language necessarily evolves. We were taught that it was incorrect grammatically to use ‘they’ in the singular, and so we didn’t write it that way in the past, but colloquially it was commonly used.

    Now it seems more appropriate than he or she as some people are sensitive to which is used, and sometimes we don’t know which to use - so ‘they’ fits the bill. And anyway, formal ways of writing are less common now than chat writing.
  • The problem might come when I am using "they" whereas the person referred to might strongly prefer "he" or "she". My "they" is not particularly meant to carry the implication of "non-binary" but now it may be perceived as so doing.
  • BoogieBoogie Shipmate
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    Boogie wrote: »
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    Boogie wrote: »
    s/he
    But how would you say that if you were speaking or reading?

    Fine for reading and writing, not speaking.
    Perhaps. Maybe I’m odd, or more odd than I already knew, but I’m a very auditory person, even when I’m reading, so I’d get hung up on that. For example, I “hear” posts on the Ship in the voices that my imagination provides for various Shipmates. Ditto with letters or emails—I “hear” them in the voice of the person they’re from.

    And yes, I realize I just admitted I hear voices. Oh well.

    I ‘hear’ nothing. I’m a very visual person. I don’t even think in words, just pictures. I have to translate them into words to speak or write.

    I don’t like or appreciate music either.

    Who is odd here, you or me? 😜

  • Nick Tamen wrote: »
    Perhaps. Maybe I’m odd, or more odd than I already knew, but I’m a very auditory person, even when I’m reading, so I’d get hung up on that. For example, I “hear” posts on the Ship in the voices that my imagination provides for various Shipmates. Ditto with letters or emails—I “hear” them in the voice of the person they’re from.

    And yes, I realize I just admitted I hear voices. Oh well.
    So do I. I read history books and hear the voice of the author if I have seen them on the BBC and I often read student essays in the voice I imagine them to have (as I teach distance learning this is often what their name suggests to me).
  • orfeoorfeo Shipmate
    The problem might come when I am using "they" whereas the person referred to might strongly prefer "he" or "she". My "they" is not particularly meant to carry the implication of "non-binary" but now it may be perceived as so doing.

    Would you actually use “they” in a context where you know enough about the person you’re referring to to identify whether “he” or “she” is the appropriate choice?
  • orfeoorfeo Shipmate
    It’s perhaps worth mentioning that some of the rules of stuffy grammarians come from a period where, for purely cultural reasons, stuffy people decided that English was terribly vulgar and needed to behave more like a “proper” language, meaning Latin.

    Which led to saying that perfectly ordinary Germanic constructions were not acceptable. The one that springs to mind is the supposed rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition.

    I don’t specifically know if singular they is an example of “ugh, that would never happen in Latin”, but I feel it’s worth raising that some of what came to be regarded as “proper” English was artificially imposed by folk who wanted to reshape English in Latin’s image.
  • TelfordTelford Shipmate
    Telford wrote: »
    I see nothing wrong in describing someone as a 'they'

    /pedant alert/

    I see what you mean, but the word *they* is a pronoun, not a noun:

    1.
    used to refer to two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified.
    "the two men could get life sentences if they are convicted"
    2.
    used to refer to a person of unspecified gender.
    "ask a friend if they could help"

    (Definitions from Oxford Languages)

    I am from The Black Country and we speak differently
  • Amanda B ReckondwythAmanda B Reckondwyth Mystery Worship Editor
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    At least in the American South, “y’all” is never used when addressing one person
    A very good friend, born and raised in Texas, now deceased, habitually used "y'all" when speaking to me alone.
  • Amanda B ReckondwythAmanda B Reckondwyth Mystery Worship Editor
    Boogie wrote: »
    I ‘hear’ nothing . . . I don’t like or appreciate music either.

    I always hear written dialog. I also see music.
  • Boogie wrote: »
    I ‘hear’ nothing . . . I don’t like or appreciate music either.

    I always hear written dialog. I also see music.

    Psychedelic!
  • cgichardcgichard Shipmate
    Back in February, I posted this on the Irksome Solecisms thread:
    I'm not happy with the new use of "they": "A woman is missing from the quarantine hotel. They may hae gone out for a smoke."
    To me, this sounds as if there must have been others besides the woman specifically mentioned.

    To my ear this use of "they" as a singular pronoun still sounds wrong when the sex of the singular person is clearly stated.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    edited May 15
    Boogie wrote: »
    s/he

    Deleted my post - the point I was making has been dealt with before I came to this thread.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    Nick Tamen wrote: »
    At least in the American South, “y’all” is never used when addressing one person
    A very good friend, born and raised in Texas, now deceased, habitually used "y'all" when speaking to me alone.
    Oh. Well, I mean, Texas. (I kid, truly I kid.) Or perhaps the gentleman was overwhelmed that so much personality could be contained in the singular Miss Amanda. :wink:

    I can only say that if someone around here was to do that, the response from any Southerner I know would be along the lines of “Who else are you talking to?”

    And @Boogie, let’s just say that our oddness is part of our charm.

  • Amanda B ReckondwythAmanda B Reckondwyth Mystery Worship Editor
    Boogie wrote: »
    I ‘hear’ nothing . . . I don’t like or appreciate music either.

    I always hear written dialog. I also see music.

    Psychedelic!

    Not really. It's mainly black and white and grey shapes, often in motion. I can't describe it any more specifically. But we digress.
  • rhubarbrhubarb Shipmate
    Just don't refer to a group in which I am a member as 'guys'. Really gets my dander up!
  • Just to clarify a point in Curiosity Killed's OP, CK mentions Fowler's English Usage then goes on to ask whether there's an American tendency to be more prescriptive in grammar. "Fowler" was the product of Henry Fowler, himself a product of a very English (cf. American) education. I don't think that Americans as a linguistic community are any more or less prescriptive than the English - but that's my perspective as neither.

    Someone above mentioned "he" as the default pronoun in English. I recall in school having it drummed into me that in French, for 99 women and one man, the pronoun is "ils" (=they, masculine), not "elles" (=they, feminine). I suspect that the English default to "he" was following a French model. This is passing out of official usage in québécois French, wherein the speaker no longer speaks of "les québécois" (=Quebeckers) but of "les québécois et québécoises" (=Quebeckers, grammatically male and female nouns, respectively).

    Finnish gets around this by having no gender distinction in pronouns. I'll have to ask around whether there are language difficulties dealing with transgender issues.

    Personally, I dislike they use of "they" for a singular - and have well before transgender issues were on almost anyone's radar, but, as someone noted above, the stakes are greater than my tender linguistic sensibilities.
  • As Garasu pointed out, "you" was once the second person plural pronoun, which was also used as the "formal" pronoun toward those of superior status. Quakers objected to the use of "you" as a singular, partly on grounds of equality, but also on the grounds that it was a falsehood to address a single person by a plural pronoun--so they addressed everyone as thee/thou. They didn't win the argument, and thee/thou vanished from ordinary English usage, "you' becoming the accepted singular. Language changes: https://theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/the-new-they/568993/
  • Garasu wrote: »
    I note that we've been using the second person plural to stand for the second person singular since at least the seventeenth century, so...
    That's actually a real and negative effect on Christian understanding, with people thinking that "Thee/thou" must always refer to God, and "you" to people as individuals, when in fact it's a collective address.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    I've found that using they/them as a pronoun has been a straightforward enough change. Many colleagues now insert a tag in email signatures for preferred pronouns, so I can note their choices and use them.


    One aspect of transitioning in South Africa that trans people can pursue is the change of identity documents to show a more accurate gender descriptor and a name change.

    It isn't simple though in a homophobic and transphobic society: there was a movement to include an additional marker on ID and passport documents, an X to indicate non-binary gender. Trans activists now argue that the gender marker in any official identity document is an outdated concept and should be removed entirely as it is not always safe to have your gender identity visible in a variety of contexts, especially if you are transgender.
  • orfeoorfeo Shipmate
    Garasu wrote: »
    I note that we've been using the second person plural to stand for the second person singular since at least the seventeenth century, so...
    That's actually a real and negative effect on Christian understanding, with people thinking that "Thee/thou" must always refer to God, and "you" to people as individuals, when in fact it's a collective address.

    Yes. But it’s no more negative than any number of things where people look at old texts, including but not confined to the Bible, and assume that it was written in modern times with modern understanding of words and concepts. Heck, at least “thou” and “you” are English.
  • BoogieBoogie Shipmate
    Thee and thou are still used round here colloquially.
  • Penny SPenny S Shipmate
    I remember hearing of a lad learning his trade with the older men - possibly miners, being told at one point that he could now thee and tha them, as a sign of acceptance as a man,
  • ThunderBunkThunderBunk Shipmate
    Still feels like a basic error of grammar to me, but then I'm a linguist by long training, and the categories and the whole system has a certain solidity in my mind, almost in a synaesthetic manner - grammar feels like a hydraulic system. I am aware that I am unusual, and do make the effort when asked to, but it makes my linguist heart wince. We all have our preferences, and this is mine. One thing we are already seeing bite is that cultures only change by common consent, not by imposition of any one element of society. I would suggest that we have seen a massive conservative backlash in part because it was decided at key point - about 20/25 years ago - to behave as if that consent had already been achieved rather than finishing the pain of achieving it. I'm not sure what the answer is, because that consent can take generations, and millions of people's lives adversely affected while it is achieved - including mine. But without it, this kind of potentialy murderous backlash is always possible.
  • KarlLBKarlLB Shipmate
    I think we have to distinguish between singular they used when gender is not known, and singular they used as a preferred pronoun by non-binary people.

    The former is hundreds of years old, and almost unavoidable:

    "Someone's knocking on the door. I wonder what they want?"

    The other is new and takes some getting used to.
  • KarlLB wrote: »
    I think we have to distinguish between singular they used when gender is not known, and singular they used as a preferred pronoun by non-binary people.

    The former is hundreds of years old, and almost unavoidable:

    "Someone's knocking on the door. I wonder what they want?"

    The other is new and takes some getting used to.

    Very true.
  • orfeoorfeo Shipmate
    KarlLB wrote: »
    I think we have to distinguish between singular they used when gender is not known, and singular they used as a preferred pronoun by non-binary people.

    The former is hundreds of years old, and almost unavoidable:

    "Someone's knocking on the door. I wonder what they want?"

    The other is new and takes some getting used to.

    Indeed I would argue that the new usage most likely arose precisely because of the old one.
  • quetzalcoatlquetzalcoatl Shipmate
    I expect there is a gradation, from singular they, commonly used, "someone's at the door, what do they want?", to less commonly used, "a woman's at the door, what do they want?", to never used, "My mother's here, what do they want?" Anecdotally, it strikes me as fairly common, and has been during my lifetime.
  • RicardusRicardus Shipmate
    edited May 15
    I expect there is a gradation, from singular they, commonly used, "someone's at the door, what do they want?", to less commonly used, "a woman's at the door, what do they want?", to never used, "My mother's here, what do they want?" Anecdotally, it strikes me as fairly common, and has been during my lifetime.

    The American linguist Steven Pinker has an interesting argument that 'they' has a dual function. I'm not 100% sure I can reproduce what he's saying, but roughly:

    In sentences like 'Your parents are here, what do they want?', 'they' acts like a 'true' pronoun - effectively it's shorthand for something that's already been identified and specified earlier in the conversation, and is analogous to a constant in maths. When 'they' is a pronoun, it's explicitly plural, and the singular forms are 'he', 'she', or 'it', which is why 'Your mother's at the door, what do they want?' sounds wrong. (Pinker's argument obviously predates the widespread use of 'they' for non-binary people.)

    In sentences like 'There's someone at the door, what do they want?', the identity of the referent of 'they' is unknown and unspecified, and it's more like the algebraic expression 'for all x, x is [whatever]'. This creates a different logical relationship and therefore you can't argue that the grammatical rules applying to the first scenario also apply here. (I.e. this is now set theory, not constants; even if you know the set only has one item in it, you can't act as though that automatically made it a constant.)

    Sentences like 'there's a woman at the door, what do they want?' could I guess be analysed either way, depending on whether you think 'a woman at the door' is enough to identify the referent or not.
  • SusanDorisSusanDoris Shipmate
    Just a quick response before reading through the thread. When I was young, I can't remember what we said, but we were corrected and told that we should use 'one'. Even then, though, it sounded clumsy and unnatural.
    The french of course having 'on' to use have solved the problem although I have no idea whether that still applies.
  • In Guinea-Bissau Crioulo, one would effectively say, "There's a somebody at the door".
  • quetzalcoatlquetzalcoatl Shipmate
    But "one" doesn't often work. Compare, "someone's at the door, I wonder what what they want", and "I wonder what one wants". But then "I wonder what he or she wants", is hideous.
  • @Timothy the Obscure As to thou/you singular/plural informal formal... In Old English, the equivalent of "Your Majesty" was "þu cyning", "thou king", i.e., still singular. I suspect that the move to the second person plural for formal speech was under the influence of Norman French.
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