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“They” As a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

June 13, 2009

I spend considerable time correcting students who incorrectly use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, like it is used in this sentence:

When an individual enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information …

This, however, isn’t a student paper, but is the first sentence of Erving Goffman’s now classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Here are two thoughts:

  1. If Goffman can do it, why shouldn’t I allow my students to do it?
  2. Why not make this the new standard? Regular references to “his or her” or “h/er” or “s/he” can be tedious. “They” can make for a perfectly good gender-neutral singular pronoun, especially since it is already used that way in colloquial speech.

UPDATE: On second thought, it looks like “they” in Goffman’s sentence refers to “others” rather than “an individual.” Oops. Well, part of what I said still stands.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2009 5:05 pm

    I use “he” as a gender neutral pronoun.

  2. Vidya permalink
    June 13, 2009 6:35 pm

    ‘Ze’ (or any of several variants thereof) is catching on in progressive circles as a gender-neutral pronoun. Then there’s the standard he/she (or s/he) or alternation between ‘he’ and ‘she’ in written contexts.
    Personally, I intend to fight the they-ification of the singular subject among my students indefinitely. Its use remains one of the important distinguishing marks between educated persons and the sort of folks who comment on YouTube videos. :-p

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    June 13, 2009 7:00 pm

    Wait, what? ‘They’ as singular is ‘incorrect’? I was not aware of that…

    What needs to happen before this usage becomes ‘correct’? Or conversely, in virtue of what fact is it not now correct?

  4. John permalink
    June 15, 2009 1:50 pm

    “Singular they” has been in use for hundreds of years. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo knocks at Friar Laurence’s door. Laurence doesn’t know if it is a man or woman knocking, so he says, “Hark, how they knock —Who’s there?” (3.3.74).

    The American Heritage Dictionary says, “The use of the third-person plural pronoun they to refer to a singular noun or pronoun is attested as early as 1300, and many admired writers have used they, them, themselves, and their to refer to singular nouns such as one, a person, an individual, and each. W.M. Thackeray, for example, wrote in Vanity Fair in 1848, “A person can’t help their birth”…George Bernard Shaw and Anne Morrow Lindbergh have also used this construction, in sentences such as “To do a person in means to kill them,” and “When you love someone you do not love them all the time.” The practice is widespread and can be found in…mainstream publications… The usage is so common in speech that it generally passes unnoticed. However, despite the convenience of third-person plural forms as substitutes for generic he and for structurally awkward coordinate forms like his/her, many people avoid using they to refer to a singular antecedent out of respect for the traditional grammatical rule concerning pronoun agreement.”

    This “traditional grammatical rule” is an invention of the 18th century, along with other senseless circumscriptions of the English language such as the “rule” that claims a preposition is something one should never end a sentence with. ;)

    I never use the singular they in my papers because I don’t know how a professor will react, preferring to avoid those types of phrases altogether. For instance, instead of “When an individual enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information,” I would have written something like “An individual entering the presence of others commonly seeks to acquire information…”

    As far as I’m concerned, the way people use a language is the correct way to use a language. “Rules” pertaining to grammar and definition cannot be imposed the way orthographical rules can.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 15, 2009 1:54 pm

    John, many thanks for your research on the topic! This lends historical credibility to the idea!

  6. June 15, 2009 2:10 pm

    What’s the deal with one?
    As in “one cannot help but indulge in a little port of an evening” or “one must brush one’s teeth” etc

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 15, 2009 2:15 pm

    One works in some cases, but it’s annoying in others.

    It makes sense to say: One might check out Missives from Marx if one is interested in critical commentary on religion.

    It’s strange to say: Let’s say an individual looked at Missives from Marx and didn’t like it; would one find it interesting or would one find it engaging?

    One doesn’t really work if it is supposed to serve as a pronoun referring back to an unnamed person …

  8. June 15, 2009 2:20 pm

    Yes… my eyes are opened :)

  9. GeroZ permalink
    June 16, 2009 3:48 am

    Being German and almost 40, I’ve been learning and afterwards speaking English as a foreign language for almost 30 years now, and I’ve never seen the singular “they” before – until I saw it on some Web 2.0 community profiles as the gender-neutral form of “he or she”.

    However, there’s one thing that puzzles me even more: If you see your own profile, you can read:
    “who you’re following” / “who’s following you” – no mystery yet.

    But if you see another person’s profile, you can read:
    “who they’re following” / “who’s following them”

    “Who they are following” does not only incorporate the otherwise plural pronoun in a singular gender-neutral context, but also the plural “they are” instead of “he/she is”.

    Is this the correct form to use the signular “they”? Opinions or remarks anyone? :)

  10. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 16, 2009 8:45 am

    GeroZ, I think the point we’re discussing is that currently that use of “they” is officially incorrect, but it is becoming more and more common, so much so that it may be officially correct soon … so I say go for it; use “they” as a singular 3rd person boldly!

  11. October 12, 2009 3:33 pm

    About six years ago I moved to Ireland to start working as a PhD researcher. One of my Irish colleagues, whose opinion on the correct use of language I respect a lot, suggested to use “they” as gender-neutral pronoun in a paper we wrote together. I have been happily using it ever since in academic publications, even suggesting its use to other non-native speaker colleagues as well. I have also used it widely in my thesis, which I have yet to defend later this year – hopefully my examiners won’t mind!

    What I wonder is: what does “officially correct” mean anyway? Is there an official language authority for all English speaking countries? Isn’t it rather the case that there are (a number of different) sources such as grammar books and style guides, some of which have more and some of which have less authority? I don’t mean to be a smart-ass, I really wonder about that.

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    October 12, 2009 3:36 pm

    I suppose “officially correct,” as a matter of practice, means what people with authority will allow, such as: peers, professors, peer reviewers, book editors, journal editors, etc.

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