Some may find it enough to drive anyone out of their senses, but the use of the singular they has a long history in the English language, dating back to the 16th century. Oxford Dictionaries offers the following, from Wayes to Perfect Religion by Cardinal Bishop of Rochester Saint John Fisher (who was executed by Henry VIII in 1535): “He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.” A little later, William Shakespeare, in A Comedy of Errors Act IV, Scene 3 (ca. 1594), wrote: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.” Another luminary of the English language, George Bernard Shaw, in Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898) opined, “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.”
Debates on the usage of the singular they arose in the 1970s in response to feminist critiques of the purported gender neutrality of he in context of making generalized statements that could encompass women as well. He or she, while initially a generally acceptable usage, over time became cumbersome and s/he, unpronounceable. The current attention on the usage of the singular they arose in response to the growing awareness that not all persons fit into binary gender categories. Some prefer the epicene they rather than the binary he or she.
The use of the singular they has become so widespread that the American Dialect Society of linguists chose it as 2015 Word of the Year, beating out “on fleek,” among other contenders. The venerable Washington Post adopted the singular they in 2015 as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun,” according to late copy editor Bill Walsh.
As of today, the Associated Press has also adopted the singular usage of they. The 2017 edition of the AP Stylebook – the basis of the Union’s style guide – which was released Wednesday, May 31, states that “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun,” while eschewing the use of “other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.” In specific cases in which people ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her, AP recommends “Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”
This, of course, leads to the question of whether to use a singular or plural verb with the singular they: “They is” sounds wrong to many ears, whereas the more common “they are” implies a plural. And yet, as “Grammar Girl” Maignon Fogarty points out, the English language already has a precedent in the use of you – “The pronoun you is both singular and plural, but we always pair it with a plural verb.” English speakers are already habituated to determining from context whether an utterance is directed at a single individual or at all within earshot.
In the end, the determination to use the singular they is about sensitivity and respect. Culture and language are inextricably linked, but does language shape culture, or vice-versa? As anglophones grow in awareness of gender fluidity, and perhaps even question the usage of gender markers at all, the English language shifts as do the sensibilities of its speakers.
Lauraine Leblanc is the scene editor and production manager of the Mad River Union and the author of Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture.