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Singular they is word of the year for 2015. A common-gender third-person pronoun, singular they has been popular in English speech and writing for over 650 years. Although frequently classified by purists as ungrammatical, its use seems undiminished, and it may even be on the rise because it fills an important linguistic niche. In recent years, more and more English speakers have sought a gender-neutral alternative to pronouns that express the traditional male/female binary, turning either to invented pronouns like xe and zie, or to that old stand-by, singular they. Because singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year, the Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel unanimously chose to honor it as word of the year for 2015.*
Singular they was Word of the Year back in 1365, when it first appeared in English as a gender-neutral English pronoun. It won again in 1885, when it was praised in the Atlanta Constitution for triumphing over the ignorant opposition of grammarians and lexicographers. That award was later asterisked because most speakers of English, who regularly used singular they in speech and writing, capitulated to the purists who insisted that it was an illiterate blunder.
The history of they goes back well before the fourteenth century. They was originally a plural pronoun, borrowed by the Anglo-Saxons from Scandinavian invaders. If you think that using they as a singular offends the purity of English grammar, get over it. As we learn from the BBC docudrama, “The Last Kingdom,” they is an immigrant word that waded ashore with undocumented Danes in the ninth century and became thoroughly English, just as the Danes did.
To be fair, the Anglo-Saxons probably thought, when they first heard it, that plural they was as barbaric as the Vikings who brought it, but English speakers gradually found themselves using plural they—just as Modern English speakers use singular they—because it did something no native English word could do. By the time “the Northmen” came to England, Anglo-Saxon third-person pronouns were starting to sound alike. Old English hē, ‘he,’ was getting confused with hēo, ‘she,’ and both were sounding more and more like hīe, ‘they.’ Having so many pronouns with similar pronunciations made it harder to tell who was who in any given sentence: Are you talking to him (singular)? Are you talking to him (plural)? Despite its foreignness, an imported word made things so much clearer: Are you talking to them?
Then, over time, the newly-nativized plural they began to fill in as a singular when gender was unknown or irrelevant. No other word seemed able to do that. This blurred the singular/plural distinction again, but that didn’t seem to matter, since context could still indicate whether the pronoun referred to one or more than one.
For most of its long history, singular they wasn’t controversial. But toward the end of the eighteenth century, some American language commentators began fussing about its correctness. In 1794, three women responded to a complaint about their use of singular they in a newspaper article by saying, "we wished to conceal the gender," and they invited their critic to coin an alternative pronoun (The Medley, or Newbedford (MA) Marine Journal, March 4, 1794, p.2).
Other calls for a new pronoun "of the common gender" begin to appear around that time--in 1808 Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that the pronoun it might work "in order to avoid particularising man or woman, or in order to express sex indifferently" (Anima Poetae , p. 190). From the 1850s on, in newspaper columns headed “The Missing Word” or “A Needed Word,” wordsmiths complained that using he for both men and women was ungrammatical, since pronouns are supposed to agree with their antecedents—the words they refer to—in gender as well as number, and generic masculines like he violate that gender agreement rule. They also called singular they “illiterate” because it violates the number agreement rule.
As early as 1851, a the Lowell, MA, Morning News called for the invention of a common-gender pronoun to solve the problem of what word to use when referring to a singular common-gender noun like person, or grammarian, or voter: “Will not some of our grammar makers ‘fish us up’ one?” (reprinted in the Brattleboro, Vermont, Semi-Weekly Eagle, Jan. 1, 1852). In 1875, an Ohio newspaper, also in the new-pronoun camp, called singular they a “blunder” sometimes found in good writing and ubiquitous in advertising, and in a burst of feminism, warned against the generic he, “because the instincts of justice are stronger than those of grammar” (Findlay, Ohio, Jeffersonian, May 14, 1875, p.1). And two years later, a pseudonymous writer facetiously suggests that um, coined “years ago by some linguistic genius,” is as good a pronoun as any: “If any person is dissatisfied with the language as it now stands, we should recommend um to adopt it” (Inter Ocean, writing in the Nebraska Advertiser, Brownville, NE, October 4, 1877, p. 1).
Recommending the use of the invented common-gender pronoun E, in 1878 an Illinois paper observed that in order to avoid both generic masculine and singular they, “scholars” must resort to ridiculous circumlocutions:
Let every brother or sister examine himself or herself, and, looking into his or her heart, find out his or her besetting sin and resolutely cast it from him or her.
Steering a course between illiteracy and pretension, the author of “The Missing Word” promotes E as “just as good a pronoun for the third person as ‘I’ is for the first,” claiming that the paradigm e, es, em had been proposed “by somebody over a year ago,” and illustrating its aptness with this sentence:
Let every brother and sister examine “emself,” and, looking into “es” heart, find out “es” besetting sin and resolutely cast it from “em.”
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Excerpt from “The Missing Word,” The Morning Star and Catholic Messenger, New Orleans, Nov. 17, 1878, p. 1; reprint of an article that first appeared in the Moline (IL) Dispatch, and referencing an earlier discussion of pronouns in the Peoria, IL, Daily Tribune.
E never took off, despite being reinvented independently in 1890, 1977, 1989, and 1992 (and perhaps more recently as well). Other invented common-gender pronouns like thon (1884) and heer (1912) shared the same oblivion, even though they appeared in respected dictionaries. Lately, pronouns like xe and zie, have generated interest, particularly among transgender and gender-nonconforming persons, but even when these coined words aren't stirring up controversy, they always seem out of place, and their use remains limited.
In contrast, singular they, which arose naturally and has been in widespread use for centuries both in speech and in writing, is showing strong signs of becoming accepted. Although frequently condemned as ungrammatical, singular they had at least one early advocate. C. K. Maddox, writing in the Atlanta Constitution in 1885, rejects the invented se, sis, sim, and calls grammarians and dictionary makers “positively stupid” for failing to recognize the popular common-gender use of singular they, which is “in daily practice among the people.” As Maddox notes, singular they in literature “is so natural to the genius of our language that hardly one in a hundred has noticed it as an intrusion” (Atlanta Constitution, reprinted in the Anderson, South Carolina, Intelligencer, May 21, 1885, p. 4; a C. K. Maddox is listed as alderman and tax collector in Atlanta around that time).
If you think singular they is wrong because a plural pronoun can't refer to a singular noun, you're wrong: you, originally plural, has doubled as the standard English singular second person pronoun for hundreds of years, and no one's longing to return to the good old days of of Merrie England when people called each other thou, thee, and thy.
Some of today’s style guides continue to regard singular they as an error, but that opposition is evaporating rapidly. The fourteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style approved singular they (1993, pp. 76-77n.), but responding to criticism of this decision, the editors of the influential style guide walked back that decision in the current, sixteenth, edition (2010; sec. 5.227). But most of the other major style books now authorize singular they, particularly in reference to an indefinite noun.
The latest edition of The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996) dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record of English and observes that, with few exceptions, the construction is “passing unnoticed” by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors. Singular they is also "approved" by the Oxford English Grammar; The New Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage; The New Oxford Dictionary; the New Oxford American Dictionary; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary; and the Cambridge Guide to English Usage. This year singular they was recommended by the Candian Department of Justice Style Guide and by the Washington Post Style Book.
Singular they has passed the test of time and good usage. Even its harshest critics use singular they--a sure sign that resistance is futile. As popular resistance to grammatical and to gender nonconformity continues to weaken, it’s time for singular they to take its rightful place in the paradigm of English personal pronouns. Singular they won’t bring about a linguistic meltdown or end gender discrimination, but it’s been flourishing bravely despite fierce opposition, and it clearly merits the honor of being the 2015 Word of the Year.
*Truth in advertising: The Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel, charged each year with picking the Word of the Year, consists entirely of me.
For the whole story on gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns, click to order your copy of my new book, What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she.’