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Old 'They,' New 'They'—Why Singular 'They' Is an Example of Language Change in Action, Even Though It's Hundreds of Years Old

Singular "they" is both old and new, and that helps explain why some uses draw attention and others don't.

By
Kirby Conrod, Writing for
5-minute read

Why did the AP style guide say it’s OK to write “Some student forgot their backpack” but suggests that writers avoid “Aiden forgot their backpack” in the same 2017 update?

Why can some people say “That driver didn’t use their blinker” but not “Alex never uses their blinker” without getting confused or mixing up pronouns? 

Or, more relevant to many of us who aren’t journalists: what’s going on with this "Dear Amy" letter in which an advice-seeker writes, “Dear Amy, I am fine addressing someone whatever gender-identification they prefer. What I object to is the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.” You may notice, as many readers did, that this letter-writer used singular “they” in the exact same paragraph where they objected to the singular use of “they.” This is surprisingly common, too—that people will use “they” in the very same breath as insisting that it’s too difficult or confusing to use “they” for a single person. So what’s going on? Are these people hypocrites? Careful linguistic analysis says no: these people are reporting an actual constraint on their unconscious mental grammar; they just don’t know how exactly to clarify when singular “they” sounds natural and when it feels mentally difficult. 

The reason people struggle is that there are really two uses of singular “they”: an old use, which has been in use in English as far back as 1375, and a new use, which is part of a big language change in the 21st century. The difference between the old singular “they” and the new singular “they” has nothing to do with agreement between singular and plural words. In fact, the thing that makes the difference for your brain is whether you’re using “they” to refer to a general or unknown person, or whether you’re using it to refer to a specific person—especially someone you know. Uses like “some student” or “each person” are grammatically singular, but the vast majority of English speakers will use and accept “they” with these phrases. These general uses don’t even need to be gender-neutral: “each woman has a right to feed their baby,” and similar uses, are very common. 

But the general uses are grammatically different from the specific uses. The new use of “they” is any use referring to a single, specific person, such as using a proper name or pointing someone out. Even definite generic phrases, like “the ideal student always does their homework,” don’t trigger the same response as a specific reference to a particular person that a proper name does. The AP style guide is picking up on this difference when they recommend that writers “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.” 

Linguists have been researching the general use of “they” for decades, but research on this new use of “they” has increased a lot the past five years. Several large surveys by linguists like Ellis Hernandez, Lauren Ackerman, Evan Bradley, and our guest writer Kirby Conrod have found that your social identity influences how natural you find the new use of singular “they.” People who are younger, for example, generally find sentences like “Basil forgets their backpack a lot” more natural than older people. When you see this kind of consistent difference in different age groups, linguists interpret this as evidence of language changing. 

All living languages are always changing, but documenting the changes as they happen can be tricky—which is why these linguists use age as a way to investigate ongoing language shift. Younger speakers of a language tend to use newer forms, while older speakers hang on to the older forms. (It's just like we've talked about on this podcast before when we've pointed out that many young people say they "graduated college," adults say they "graduated from college," and much older adults say they "were graduated from college.") 

Social factors also play into language change and natural variation in language. These studies have also found that people who have more prescriptive beliefs about language are less likely to accept the new use of singular “they,” and people who have more nonbinary friends are also more likely to accept the newer use. 

In the case of singular “they,” these age differences are one piece of evidence that the specific use of the pronoun—the one used by some transgender and nonbinary people—is a newer use. That doesn’t mean it’s less correct, but it does mean that organizations dedicated to formal language guidelines are often somewhat behind the times. In fact, the editors at the Associated Press have said in the past that they aim to follow the way their writers and readers are using the language, not to lead when it comes to change.

Further, not all style guides are suggesting that you avoid this new form: the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA, and the APA style guides all say it’s absolutely fine to use “they” for a person if that person uses they/them pronouns. In fact, the Trans Journalists Association has its own style guide that gives the most up-to-date guidance: “They/them pronouns are not new and should not require an explanation for audiences. […] The media has been reporting regularly on singular they/them pronouns in relation to trans people for at least a decade, and these pronouns are in the dictionary.”

If you’re one of the people for whom the new form just feels difficult and slightly unnatural, don’t worry: brain imaging studies from linguists and psychologists Dan Grodner, Sadie Camilliere, Peiyao Chen, Grusha Prasad, and others have shown that you’re not alone. In EEG scans, they’ve found that people’s brains react the same way to the new form of singular “they” as they’d react to any other syntax anomaly (like how some people find it strange to say “The car needs washed,” or “It’s very crowded downtown anymore.”). 

And linguists like Jennifer Arnold and I are studying how people learn new grammatical constructions like singular “they” over the course of their lives. This language change is unusual because it’s one that many speakers are consciously aware of (unlike language changes such as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, where people in states like Michigan and Minnesota sometimes pronounce vowels differently, such as “busses” sounding more like “bosses.” Such changes are often unconscious).

If you want to get better at using they/them pronouns for the people in your life, you can approach it kind of like learning a second language: the best thing to do is practice, as much as possible, and put yourself in situations where you get lots of positive reinforcement. I have some tips in my blog posts, and you might also like A Quick And Easy Guide To They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson.  

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Kirby Conrod, Writing for Grammar Girl

Kirby Conrod received their PhD in linguistics from the University of Washington and is currently a visiting assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. Their research focuses on the syntax and sociolinguistics of pronouns and nonbinary language. You can find them on Twitter @kirbyconrod, and they also blog about pronouns, linguistics, and higher ed at their Medium blog