Of Gender, Language, and Clarity: A Rebuttal (Guest Post)

September 9, 2014

This is a guest post by Amy Frushour Kelly, coordinator of CFI-Long Island.  

In his September 2, 2014 blog post, Tom Flynn argues against the use of the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. He reasons:

Whether an individual is cisgender, is transgender, or occupies any intermediate point on that spectrum, the person in question remains an individual — that is, unitary. Whatever gender identification you, the reader, might embrace, there’s only one of you. … The problem is that adopting a plural pronoun to denote a single individual invites just such misinterpretations.

Tom goes on to explain his point: the nonspecificity of a formerly plural pronoun to denote a singular.

As a professional writer and editor, and as a member of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), I take issue with this line of reasoning. It’s a prescriptive interpretation of a grammar rule that’s been evolving since the early 1990s; Google’s Ngram Viewer reveals that “everybody has their” has been more commonly used in literature than “everybody has his” since 1992 . Most style guides consider “he or she” appropriate for formal writing, but Random House Dictionary andFowler’s Modern English Usage (Third Edition) both condone the singular “they” in informal usage. (Interestingly, the Chicago Manual of Style endorsed singular “they” in the 90s, only to reverse the endorsement in later editions. Not sure why.) Even Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty is unambiguously in favor of the singular “they,” encouraging editors and style guides to include it in their guidelines.

Is it plausible, as Tom argues, that a reader will misinterpret the number of individuals due to the pronoun? No. The singular “they” is in popular use expressly to denote a nonspecific or hypothetical individual; not a specific individual. The context clarifies the number of individuals (the number not generally being an issue, since these individuals are nonspecific and hypothetical). So the singular “they” doesn’t refer to the syntactical number; it refers to the semantic number. “Everybody” is semantically plural, and so is “they.” Besides, it’s in everyday use. Catherine Soanes writes on the OxfordWords Blog:

This usage is increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing, especially in contexts where a plural pronoun or possessive determiner follows an indefinite pronoun such as anyone, no one, or someone … [T]his isn’t even a new development: it’s found in the writings of such eminent figures as Shaw and Goldsmith.

Speaking of Shaw and Goldsmith, what about historical precedent? Well, the English language is no stranger to the use of plural pronouns for nonspecific individuals. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the singular “they” was in common popular usage as recently as the 16th century. Telegraph comment editor Tom Chivers wrote a delightful piece in defense of the singular “they,” citing numerous examples of its use in many of our great English literary works; it turns out that William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, George Eliot, William Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, and Walt Whitman all used the singular “they.” It’s an entertaining essay; if you have the time, please take a look.

So is it reasonable to use the singular “they?” I think so. We have ample evidence of historical usage; of usage by respected authors and playwrights; of widespread current usage; and of acceptance by acknowledged authorities, including ACES. The singular “they” is common in conversational use and increasingly frequent in writing.

Now let’s revisit Tom’s concern: that the singular “they” is confusing when it refers to a specific individual. Singular “they” isn’t condoned by any major style guide of which I’m aware. Some style guides advise the use of zhe/zhir/zhim to denote specific gender-neutral persons. I dislike these fabricated pronouns for a number of reasons, but primarily because they’re made up. Thirty years ago, the fabricated title “Ms.” entered into popular usage, but there were excellent reasons for it to be integrated into our culture: it looks and sounds very similar to the feminine titles that preceded it, and it can be pronounced intuitively, without guesswork. “Zhe/zhir/zhim” doesn’t have those advantages. But “they” does. In fact, specific singular “they” is used with increasing frequency in conversation, especially when referring to people who wish to avoid gender bias. It isn’t particularly common—yet. In our current culture, which is rapidly becoming more accepting of gender-neutrality, it’s easy to imagine the assimilation of a third pronoun. With singular “they,” we’re halfway there already.

English is a living language. Let’s embrace its evolution—particularly when doing so permits us to express ourselves in an inclusive, gender-neutral manner.

Amy Frushour Kelly is coordinator of CFI-Long Island.