Singular “they” is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. There is no decent reason to require that third-person singular pronouns — and only third-person singular pronouns — always specify gender. “He” has never truly covered men and women equally, though starting in the 1800s some people tried to insist that it did, and constructions such as “he or she” or “s/he” are clunky at best. So it’s natural to accept officially what has been an informal workaround for centuries: extending the plural pronoun to cover the singular.
It’s not the first time that English has done this. As early as the 1200s, we started using the plural “you” for individuals of higher status, and by the 1800s, rather than continuing to specify respect — or lack of it — in pronouns, we had almost entirely stopped using the lower-status singular “thou.” If we can use a plural form in place of a singular to erase a status-based distinction, we can certainly do it to erase a gender-based distinction.
But there is one problem that we run into with singular “they,” a problem we have already encountered with singular “you”: how do you make clear when it’s plural?
That’s still a useful distinction, and it’s not always obvious from context. Consider a sentence such as “The CEO met the VPs at a bar, but they drank too much and started singing karaoke, so they left.” If specifying the gender of the CEO is out of the question, to clarify who “they” refers to we’ll need to rewrite the sentence to avoid the pronouns — and if it’s a longer narration, that gets clunkier and clunkier. So what do we do?
Well, what did we do with “you”? For a time — quite a while, in fact, from the late 1600s through the late 1700s — singular “you” got singular verbs: “you was,” “you is,” “you does.” It was so common, Robert Lowth inveighed against it in his 1762 A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Even Doctor Johnson used “you was.” Will we try the same kind of thing with “they” — saying “they is” and “they was”? A few people have tried it, but such usages are already strongly associated with “uneducated” English, and so they’re unlikely to become commonplace. And “you was” didn’t last, after all — Doctor Johnson and everyone else ultimately switched to “you were” even for the singular.
So how do we specify plural “you”? You know how: we add further plural specification to it. In the U.S. South, “y’all” or “you-all” is very common, and it’s spreading; in other places, “yous,” “youse,” “you ’uns,” “yiz” and “yinz” are local favourites. In many other places, we say “you guys” or something similar when we need to make the distinction. And I’ll wager we’ll end up doing the same kind of thing with plural “they.” “They-all” seems readily available; “those ones” and “those guys” are likely to show up; differential usages of “themselves” and “themself” are already in use and may be extended; and others may appear — I’ll be watching eagerly. And in some contexts, for added clarity, something like “the one” might be used for the singular.
What do we do as editors, here and now? We keep an eye on how popular use is changing. When we can, we use our positions to influence it a little. And, as always, we use our judgment to find what’s clearest and most effective for the audience of the text we’re working on.
Registered conference attendees can continue to access James Harbeck’s conference session, “A Hidden Gender? Language, Gender, and Pronouns,” by logging in to the virtual event website until Sept. 30, 2021.
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