the boy came back
and the tree shook with joy
and she said, “Come, Boy,
climb up my trunk
and swing from my branches
and be happy.”
from The Giving Tree
written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein
Harper & Row, 1964
While not a grammarian in the true and complete sense of the word, my mom was well-spoken and used good grammar. She expected nothing less from my sister, brother, and me. Words, sentences, phrases either sounded right to me or they did not.
Using they to refer back to a singular antecedent (That boy didn’t finish their assignment) didn’t sound right. And mostly it wasn’t, except that it really was, historically.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites an example from a medieval romance (dated 1375) that refers to an unnamed man “who hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.”
In the 18th century, grammarians believed that English grammar should closely follow Latin grammar. In that case, a singular pronoun must refer to a singular noun. But English is a Germanic language, not Latinate. The teaching stuck, though. And, until very recently, singular they was generally not accepted.
Back in the 17th century, the plural you began to replace thee, thou, and thy. As late as 1660, George Fox (founder of Quakerism) labeled anyone a fool who substituted thou for the singular you. He wrote a whole book about it.
Language changes slowly, but it changes. Now we understand you as singular or plural. I will meet you at 10 can be addressed to a special someone or to a whole group. We need context to understand the meaning, except in some parts of the South, where the difference is noted by y’all (singular) and all y’all (plural).
They is following a similar pattern. According to grammarly.com, Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary have joined the OED in accepting singular they in formal writing as well as informal. The APA’s (American Psychological Association) style manual is used by journalists and scholars in many disciplines. The APA adopted singular they in 2019.
Even so, in Tennessee as recently as 2016, after the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers ask their students, ‘What’s your pronoun?’ because some students might prefer a … nonbinary pronoun … like singular they, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law banning the use of taxpayer dollars for gender-neutral pronouns, despite the fact that no one knows how much a pronoun actually costs.” (OED blog)
People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. Those who stick with the awkward he or she, or himself or herself, or s/he are labeled “out of date.” Using male pronouns to refer to any non-specific person is confusing at best, and sexist at worst. In today’s quote, Shel Silverstein wanted to emphasize the feminine quality of care-taking by calling his tree she. Here’s a short tangent. Although I like his poetry, I have some serious issues with The Giving Tree. Maybe enough for another post!
And except for when we know the gender of a non-human, say our pets, mostly we use the non-gendered it. Which is why Silverstein’s she catches the reader’s (and listener’s) ear. It’s out of the ordinary.
Traditionally, singular they was used to describe someone whose gender was not known or not important. For example, In a fit of rage, the child broke all their crayons. It doesn’t matter whether the child is a boy or girl. We readers don’t even know their(!) name.
The current, different use of singular they refers to a known person who chooses a non-binary pronoun for their(!) own personal reasons. Just as each of us claims a social identity, we can also affirm a particular pronoun. It can be he or she (and their several forms: her, him, hers and his), but it doesn’t have to be. Singular they evens the playing field, so to speak. Everyone can be referred to with the same pronoun: they. It’s inclusive. It’s egalitarian. It’s grammatically correct. The problem of a gender-neutral singular pronoun is solved in a single word: they.
We’re not alone. Most modern languages are also grappling with singular non-gendered pronouns. Here's a discussion and a handy chart from Babbel, the language-learning site.
Singular they still sounds “funny” to my overly-trained ears. I know, though, that just like re-training myself to use only one space after a period at the end of a sentence, “Children . . . they” and “she . . . they” will sound and feel better with each use.
Of course, rewriting a sentence to avoid a pronoun is always an option. Everyone raised their glass to language’s evolution! can become They all raised their glasses to language’s evolution!
-—stay curious! (and inclusive)