The awkward but necessary singular they

From a New York Times online discussion about the use of the gender-neutral they/them/their as singular:

Marilou: “[T]hey is a doctor.”

Tallulah: “[Y]ou conjugated the verb ‘be’ wrong; you should have said, ‘They are a doctor.’”

Lars: “[Marilou] conjugated her phrase correctly, according to nonbinary usage, which just goes to show that our current understanding of ‘they’ as plural will pose a problem until the use becomes more common.”

More on whether Tallulah or Lars is correct later. I use their comments to show how word people struggle with using they/them/their to refer to an individual. We want to be sensitive to nonbinary people for whom neither he nor she is appropriate. But it’s painful: many of us have spent a lifetime upholding proper grammar.

For all its vast vocabulary, English lacks gender-neutral personal pronouns. When my generation learned English grammar, we were taught that pronouns must agree with their antecedents in gender and number — except that he could be used as a universal pronoun for both sexes. Feminism degraded the universal he, which gladdened me as a woman but made being an editor more difficult. To avoid repeating he or she, editors were advised to recast sentences in the plural.

Some people say that in time we’ll adjust to the singular they, just as we adjusted to “his husband” and “her wife.” But those terms are grammatical.

A few years ago there was talk of new gender-neutral pronouns like xe or ze. In fact, gender-neutral English pronouns have been suggested for a century and a half and failed to gain currency. It’s hard to work out how new pronouns would be proposed, agreed upon, and adopted. (If you’re curious about all the words that have been suggested, see “The gender-neutral pronoun: 150 years later, still an epic fail.”)

By the time I retired from the Northwestern University publications office four years ago, the singular they was becoming accepted in sentences such as “Someone left their keys on the table” or “Ask a friend if they could help.” Although language purists frowned on it, they in reference to ambiguous antecedents has been used for centuries in fact, with the Oxford English Dictionary providing examples going back to Chaucer.

Using they to refer to a specific person is different. Not only does it sound incorrect, it can be confusing. Sunday’s Chicago Tribune had a story about a transgender Evanston teacher who has encountered prejudice. Every time I read they or them, I paused to think about whether the reference was to the teacher or a group of people.

Even as I describe the difficulties for editors and readers, I realize that the more important viewpoint is that of a nonbinary person. In an interview, the great New Yorker editor Mary Norris said that although “it’s not that easy” to change, we have to try so as not to be hurtful. “[Y]ou should call people what they want to be called,” advised Norris, who has a transgender sibling and knows firsthand the hurt an incorrect pronoun can cause.

Our style bibles have changed to the same advice.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed in the Northwestern University publications office where I worked, accepts the use of the singular they to refer to a person who does not identify as he or she. A couple of years ago the AP Stylebook, followed by the majority of newspapers in the United States, sanctioned the use of they/them/their as singular gender-neutral pronouns.

Both AP and Chicago say that the singular they should take a plural verb. They is “a grammatical plural” even when used in the singular sense, Chicago says. So in the discussion copied at the start of this post, Tallulah was correct: It should be “They are a doctor.”




I was reminded of the technology divide between young people and my generation when reading Heidi Stevens’s column in today’s Chicago Tribune. Stevens wrote about a college student and Chicago Public Schools graduate who realized that with teachers on strike, CPS students need other people to edit their college application essays before the November 1 early decision/early action deadline. The student, Marcianni Morillo, used Instagram to enlist CPS alumni to edit essays and had 80 volunteers in less than two days. She set up Google documents for CPS seniors seeking help with their essays and for volunteer editors. She then paired the writers and editors.

When I retired as a Northwestern publications editor, I had a similar idea: to use my background to be of service by volunteering to edit the college application essays of CPS students. It would help level the playing field against affluent students who could afford private advisers. But because I wasn’t savvy with social media, my idea didn’t take off. I volunteered to an organization that wanted volunteers to be more coaches than editors and quit after a year. I wrote CPS administrators for advice about how to put my idea into action and didn’t get an answer.

Maybe I’ll revive the idea sometime, but it looks like I should learn to use social media first.




“The last thing we need is Donald Trump coming here . . . He continues to use his vile contempt for Chicago to fuel division.”
Chicago Tribune columnists Dahleen Glanton, about Trump’s coming to Chicago today to address the International Association of Chiefs of Police


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  • Think that we'll have trouble getting used to the awkward third person singular "they?" Wait until the Romantic languages start making all their (pl. poss.) nouns gender neutral. E.g, la table in French and el dinero in Spanish. Ever since high school Spanish and French I've wondered who assigned those genders and why, for example, a table is feminine and money is masculine.

  • That gives me reason not to learn a Romance language!

    On another subject: good luck in Florida.

  • In reply to Marianne Goss:

    Thanks. Enjoying it already.

  • Can we go for a neutral "it"? Or perhaps an Orwellian "carbon unit"?

  • I believe "it" was considered and rejected for referring to a thing rather than a person.

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