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Their, them, themselves, they (as singular pronouns)

Many English speakers believe that using the plural pronouns they, themthemselves, and their in gender-neutral singular constructions is incorrect. For example, these people would consider the them in “call a friend and ask them to come over” to be wrong because them by definition refers to multiple people, whereas in this clause its antecedent (a friend) is singular.

But there are problems with this view. The main one is that English needs singular gender-neutral pronouns. There is no way to completely avoid them, as they are required whenever we need to speak about an unspecified person whose gender is unknown, and this sort of situation is far from rare. It’s always possible to reword sentences to avoid the problem completely, but this tends to result in unnatural-sounding constructions, and it requires you to waste a disproportionate amount of effort solving a problem that doesn’t actually exist.

There are three main fixes for English’s lack of singular-gender neutral pronouns. The first is to use either he or she and trust the reader not to be confused. This was the approach for centuries, though of course writers traditionally used the male pronouns, a practice that rightly came to be viewed as sexist by the 20th century. One can avoid the sexism by using only female pronouns or by alternating female and male, but while this makes the option slightly better, it doesn’t change the fact using the male or female pronouns this way can cause confusion. Plus, the practice tends to call attention to itself. The reader stops and thinks, “Oh, this writer is doing the sheas-gender-neutral-pronoun thing.”

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The second option is the one that now prevails in much formal writing. It is to use he or shehim or herhimself or herself, and his or her. This approach is conventional now, so it is the safest choice in writing for school or work, but it is not a permanent solution. The clunkiness of the phrases goes against the modern trajectory of the language, which is toward breeziness and concision, and the practice calls attention to itself similarly to the first option. It also tends to sound formal, causing many people to shy away from it in speech and in less formal writing.

The last option is to move beyond the old view that theirthemthemselves, and they cannot function as singular pronouns and to embrace them in this use with no qualms. This is tricky because anyone who takes this approach must accept that a certain percentage of their readers are going to think it’s simply wrong. But besides that, there is much to recommend this approach. Most important, the singular theirthem, etc. are already widely used, and they have been widely used for centuriesMany English speakers use them unconsciously without ever questioning the practice until someone calls attention to it. In fact, the supposed problem of English’s lack of singular gender-neutral pronouns has already been solved. It’s just that some people have been led to believe that a perfectly natural habit among a preponderance of English speakers is wrong.

So don’t hold back. If you think the singular their, them, themselves, they sound fine, don’t stop yourself from using them just because some people think there is a rule.

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Comments

  1. So how is always using “her/she” different than it is/was with always using “him/he”?

  2. R. Scott Poppele says:

    We should not necessarily be guided by hard and fast rules, it’s true. While it is true that common usage does and must govern language usage, this is not the only consideration. Awkward wording exists with some constructions, and we have both formal and informal ways to deal with those situations. Most importantly, language exists to communicate specific messages. Poetry and prose have their place, but when it comes to anything other than a strictly informal venue, recommending the use of plural pronouns to refer to individuals is a misguided practice. I have come across newspaper and magazine articles as well as professional speeches in which the message has been clouded because of cavalier attitudes toward the words one chooses. I do not advocate a strictly prescriptive approach to language use, but I caution that ignoring academic considerations may present its own perils.

  3. Wendy Kalman says:

    It’s not that “many English speakers believe,” that using plural nouns in singular situations is incorrect — it is that it is incorrect. English doesn’t suddenly need a gender neutral singular pronoun now, if we’ve gotten by without it for all these years. What we need are writers who write correctly, and in this TXTing world, this need is even greater. Words such as “anyone, everybody, nobody” ARE singular. “They” is plural. It’s as simple as that.

    If you don’t like using “he or she,” then consider a fourth alternative. Substitute a plural word for your antecedent singular word instead of futzing around with the later pronouns. For example, instead of “To me, “Illuminating” through photography is about opening up everyone’s eyes to something they’ve maybe never seen before,” try “To me, “Illuminating” through photography is about opening up viewers’ eyes to something they’ve maybe never seen before.”

  4. Wace Chan says:

    and what if the character is agender ((even though that is unlikely because writers seem to only acknowledge him and her)) then shouldnt you still be allowed to use they them themselves and their?!

    • Wendy Kalman says:

      It and its are singular; they, them, their are plural.

      • MiceFaces says:

        But Mr. Wendy, isn’t it “incorrect” to “it” to refer to people?
        /

        • Wendy Kalman says:

          Dunno. Depends what the person prefers. He/She? Either way, the person is singular, not plural.

          • MiceFaces says:

            Well many people, individuals that is, prefer to be called “they.”

          • Wendy Kalman says:

            No. Writers prefer it. Lazy writers prefer it. Rules of grammar, of agreement, don’t change just because people want them to. The style guides I looked at, if I remember correctly, indicated that lack of agreement is used in casual writing, but still not acceptable in formal writing. I take formal to mean news pieces, magazine articles, and even books (with the exception of dialogue).

            As for agender people — I’ve never heard of agender people, but everything I’ve read or seen about transgender people, especially those in transition, is that they identify as either male or female. He or She. Not They. Individuals are individuals..

            Must get back to work now…

          • MiceFaces says:

            “As for agender people — I’ve never heard of agender people, but everything I’ve read or seen about transgender people, especially those in transition, is that they identify as either male or female. He or She. Not They. Individuals are individuals..”

            Everything you’ve seen or read about? So you don’t actually know any, I take it? I happen to know quite a few gender-neutral individuals, and they ALL use “they/them/their.” Many trans people prefer to use “he” or “she,” true, but not all. And there are many who simply identify as “queer” or “intersex” (a term which refers to somebody born with both male and female sexual organs), who also prefer “they/them.”

            As for the style guides, I’m a professional copy editor so I’m very familiar with them. I prefer serial commas, adhering to the that/which distinction, using directional quotes and apostrophes, and American style punctuation. I’m also of the opinion that the style guides are written by a lot of backwards, rigid, dogmatic squares–steeped in a largely straight, white, male, elitist, and upper-class intellectual, tradition–who don’t understand how language evolves and changes, and am also aware that singular “they” is a subject of ongoing debate. In one generation, I suspect the old-fashioned grammarians will have given away on this issue (many of them already are). In the end, style guides and dictionaries reflect common usage as much as they prescribe it. They are also the most stubbornly slow to change, and as such have a largely negative image in the minds of many. I suggest you read David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage” if you want an extremely engaging account of how much professional grammarians’ debates over language usage are driven by politics, as opposed to scientific objectivity.

            As for the style guides’ claims that it is the result of “laziness,” that’s COMPLETELY false. Some of the most rigorous, hardworking academics I know of are strongly in favor of using “they/them” as singular. This includes literature professors (my college major; I’m afraid I don’t personally know many linguists). The president of my alma matter even used “they” in the singular.

            “Rules of grammar, of agreement, don’t change just because people want them to.”

            Actually they do. A lot. They change through coercion, social pressure, and ultimately what are often arbitrary decisions, as well as some completely practical ones (“they/them” as singular happens to be very practical). For example, the “rule” against split infinitives came from grammarians who wanted English to be more like Latin. The rule that you have to say “I am well,” not only came from American elementary school teachers, it’s also completely hypocritical: if it were true, it would be normal to say “I am quickly.” Many other rules of the English language were decided on over the centuries by academics working in cities, where enough English speakers converged for the elite to dictate grammar rules that stuck for a long time, and came to form the English we speak today. No doubt these rules are useful. They allow us to know each other’s meaning and have pleasing consistency. They do, also, change.

          • Wendy Kalman says:

            Call me old-fashioned or a stickler, but until the guides actually do change, I’ll still cringe then I see “they” or “their” used to refer back to “everyone” or “anybody” with the exception of sentences specifically referring to agender people.

          • MiceFaces says:

            Fair enough. I’m glad you respect the use of it for agender people. Fun fact: CMS 14th edition prescribed singular “they” but was pressured out of the decision in the 15th edition.

          • Alex Berridge says:

            I cringe at “refer back”

          • YonLittleSwine says:

            “I’m also of the opinion that the style guides are written by a lot of
            backwards, rigid, dogmatic squares–steeped in a largely straight,
            white, male, elitist, and upper-class intellectual, tradition–who don’t
            understand how language evolves and changes…”

            How do you know for a fact that those straight, white, male, elitist, upper-class intellectuals aren’t familiar with the evolution of language? Maybe they do know, and prefer to fight against certain aspects of it.

            While I’m here, I’d rather put up with their strictures than those of homosexual, nonwhite, female, liberal, lower-class simpletons.

  5. Alex Berridge says:

    If you’re talking about an unborn child without knowing the gender would it be incorrect to say “I can’t wait to meet them”?! Doesn’t sound wrong at all.

  6. IridescentOak says:

    “writers traditionally used the male pronouns, a practice that rightly
    came to be viewed as sexist by the 20th century. One can avoid the
    sexism by using only female pronouns”
    How does using only female pronouns remove sexism? This is only “sexism” (which is really hard to define, as it can have wildly varying meanings) in a different form.

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