“They” As a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun
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:
- If Goffman can do it, why shouldn’t I allow my students to do it?
- 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.