August 19th, 2012


Singular they

Although for much of its history English divided nouns into masculine, feminine, and neuter genders, often with little regard for the meaning of the noun (so wīf ‘woman’ was neuter, for example), the modern language has abandoned these distinctions. The only remnant of gender is in the pronouns he, she, and it, but even in the simplicity of this system there are less-than-obvious connections between grammar and meaning. This post will serve as a brief overview of how third person pronouns are used in my variety of English, so although I believe my usage to be not atypical of Standard American English, the post is based on the speech of a single individual.

The form of a pronoun is based on two considerations: first, the nature of the entity to which it refers, and second, the grammatical function of the pronoun. The difference between he and she lies in the first consideration; the difference between he and him in the second. Grammar in the second sense is outside the scope of this post, which will focus on how real-world properties are taken into account in choice of pronoun.

The relevant properties of an entity are its gender and its number (singular or plural). The four resulting pronouns with their traditional labels are masculine singular he, feminine singular she, neuter singular it, and plural they, and indeed these labels are mostly accurate. A man is referred to as he, a woman as she, a book as it, and several of the above as they. A human must be referred to as he or she, but an animal may be referred to as he, she, or it. However, all of the following are also perfectly idiomatic:

1) Look at him go!
(referring to an animal of unknown sex)
2) Anyone who forgot their coat can pick it up later.
3) When you find the thief, let me know if they took my necklace.

Example 1 involves the extension of a gendered pronoun to a case where sex is unknown and we would expect it. Masculine pronouns may be used for animals of unknown or irrelevant sex, so farm animals like cattle or chickens, for whom the distinction of sexes is important to humans, usually have gender aligned with sex. There is an obvious asymmetry here between masculine and feminine gender (compare the tradition of referring to ships with feminine pronouns). I refrain from speculating on the explanation for this asymmetry at this point, as my knowledge of gender cross-linguistically is limited.

Examples 2 and 3 involve uses of semantically singular they, whose use in writing is currently a matter of some debate, but which is well established in speech. They is used as a solution to the problem of choosing between masculine and feminine when neither is known to be appropriate (that is, as a “gender-neutral” pronoun) – or so it is often claimed. There are difficulties with this hypothesis, as examples 4 and 5 demonstrate.

4) The next king will have trouble claiming their crown.
5) ?If you see Alex, tell them about the squonk that’s loose in the woods.

In 4, the king must be male, so why is they an option? Conversely, in 5, it is less natural to use they, even though the sex of Alex may be unknown. If they were simply to be used when none of he, she, it are appropriate, example 4 would be incorrect and example 5 correct.

The solution to this problem can be found in the historical origins of singular they. How did a plural word come to be used to refer to singular entities? Example 2 suggests a possible pathway. Traditional prescriptivism recommends anyone who forgot his coat can pick it up later, with a singular pronoun, but as no specific individual is being referred to (“anyone” is a member of a multi-person set, and quite possibly more than one member), a plural pronoun is a viable alternative: so anyone, and likewise someone, come to be frequently used with they. The next step is to reanalyze this use of they, so that the choice is no longer governed by the potential plurality of the antecedent, but instead its non-specificity. Thus the plural pronoun is no longer used exclusively for plural entities, but also for entities who have not yet been identified. This use has progressed to the extent that a new reflexive form themself has been invented by analogy with himself and herself, a division being drawn between singular and plural uses of they.

It is often claimed that singular they is nothing more than an alternative for he and she, and approved of or disapproved of as a sample of gender-neutral language reforms in general. However, it is by no means clear that the success of singular they should be attributed to such reforms, which have had most success in the alteration of nouns such as chairman. The ascendency of the second person plural pronoun you guys, with its obvious masculine origin, suggests that pronouns are less susceptible to such reform, as one might expect from the greater tendency of nouns to be borrowed from language to language. The emergence of they would then be a natural development along the pathway outlined above.

(Minor edit 5-13-13)