Grammar Chaos: "They" is Not What You Think

Posted on Feb 22, 2017

The American Dialect Society surprised half of the world’s grammarians with its proclamation of the 2015 word of the year. Beating out newfangled terms, such as on fleek (an adjective, meaning “impeccable”) and ammosexual (a noun, meaning “a person who fetishizes firearms”) is a humble pronoun: the singular they.

Grammar Hammer: The Singular Resurgence of Singular Pronoun They by

This announcement created a huge controversy among grammarians, scholars, and fans of the English language. Some asserted that it was simply grammatically incorrect, while others saw it as a bold move.

Traditionalists claim that the singular they is an insult to English and those who study it. The use of pronouns with assigned genders has been around for centuries. Over time, masculine pronouns took over, replacing singular nouns with unknown gender. The singular they was introduced as early as the 1300s, but it was deemed grammatically incorrect in the 1600s when Latin grammar was applied. All stylebooks created declared the singular they incorrect, and its usage fell out of popularity.

Take a look at the following sentence:

  The patient has been informed of their condition.

Traditionalists prefer that the sentence read like this:

  The patient has been informed of his/her condition.

However, the first sentence reads better than the second one. Word economy is one of the two most prominent defenses in favor of the singular they. The second popular defense is gender sensitivity. The additional usage of they as a singular pronoun is for people who don’t identify themselves as either he or she.

Even before this announcement, publications have slowly warmed up to using the singular they, if they haven’t been using it yet. The Post has been open to using they as a singular pronoun. The Chicago Manual of Style has recommended its use since its fourteenth edition in 1993. The Australian Federation Press Style Guide is also in favor of the use of a gender-neutral language whenever possible.

It is a universal truth that language is dynamic. This is what gives birth to new words and, sometimes, new rules in language. The acceptance of the singular they into not only informal but also formal language is proof that society is alive and continues to evolve.


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