Singular 'They' Has Its Day

Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read
Episode #499

The Singular 'They'

Finally, we have the solution that everyone loves to hate and which the Washington Post has now adopted—using the personal pronoun they, which breaks the rule that you don't use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. Now, a Post journalist could write they should at least buy everyone ice cream—and get away with it. (Not exactly because Bill Walsh still recommends that you should rewrite sentences to avoid the problem, which you can usually do by making the antecedent plural—If any residents win the lottery, they should at least buy everyone ice cream—but still, the singular they isn’t as verboten as it used to be.)

What's Wrong With the Pronoun 'He'?

Jumping back for a minute, I know some of you may disagree that using he is sexist; but even if you disagree, you should still at least consider the alternatives because most of the major style guides do recommend against using he in a generic way. (I specifically checked MLA, APA, and Chicago, and I know I have seen it in others. The Associated Press does allow he where the Post would allow they, but the Associated Press style guide also say it’s usually better to rewrite your sentence.) In the article where the Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh announced that the Post would allow the singular they, he said that “a male default [pronoun] hasn’t been palatable for decades.”

This is obviously an area of language that is in flux. The American Dialect Society word of the year is something exciting and new, not something that’s been settled for decades.

What About New Pronouns Like 'Zie' and 'Hen'?

Over the years, people have tried to introduce new pronouns such as zie, zir, and thon to fill the void, but none of these has had much success outside specialized communities. 

Interestingly, in Sweden, a gender neutral pronoun, hen, started getting a lot of attention in 2013 when the media picked up a story about a children’s book that was written using the pronoun. In Swedish, han means “he” and hon means “she.” In the 1960s, people introduced hen as a gender neutral pronoun, and last year the Swedish Academy added hen to the country’s official dictionary. So although it’s rare, new pronouns can sometimes gain acceptance.

Coming back to English, in 2007, Dr. Elaine Stotko, from the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, and her student, Margaret Troyer, heard school children in Baltimore using the slang word yo as a gender-neutral singular pronoun—not in a way to get attention, like Yo, check this out, and not as a form of your as in yo momma, but like a real singular pronoun. They used it only in informal situations, like talking to each other in the halls and taking about other children, and I haven’t heard of this isolated trend spreading, but it’s still an interesting development that highlights how much we need a pronoun to fill the gap: so much that kids are making up words.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.