Singular They

This is an essay I wrote for a grammar course, about the use of singular ‘They’, edited a bit:

My essay:

Any applied study of English
grammar would reveal that language comprises a constantly evolving set of
conventions. For this reason, language experts often find themselves warring
over the rules of grammar. These people typically fall into two main factions. Prescriptivists are grammarians
who recommend writers follow “long-established” rules, viewing any deviations
as “incorrect” usage; descriptivists, on the other hand, are linguistic experts who assert that
“a language is defined
by how its users speak and write it, and that language ‘authorities’
can only describe usages, not allow or disallow
them”. One example of a practice under dispute is the use
of they as a singular pronoun, with a
singular, indefinite antecedent. By examining the history of this usage, we can
begin to see how much a language is shaped by the people who use it, often to
the point of persuading even the most inflexible of prescriptivists to bend the
rules a little to reflect changing times.

Dennis Baron, a
professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois,
reveals through his research that people have been seeking a common gender pronoun
for more than two centuries. Some past suggestions included hi, le,
hiser, and thon, but
none were universally accepted. Meanwhile, the use of they as a singular, common gender pronoun can be observed in the
works of many well-known writers, from Chaucer to Shakespeare. As Linguist and
writer, Jonathon Owen, points out in his
blog, the disagreements arose when prescriptivists began favouring the use of he as an all-inclusive, singular pronoun
during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was problematic because the
use of primarily masculine pronouns to refer to a common gender caused readers
to envision a male subject, even when the context did not specify gender. The
result was that many felt excluded—both women and gender non-conforming
individuals alike.

In his discussion of
the history of pronouns on a podcast
by MPR
News, Professor Baron takes us back to the matter of
“correctness”. He notes that in earlier examples of written language, the
resistance to the use of they as a
singular pronoun had more to do with grammatical correctness and logic than
inclusivity. The
rule holds that a pronoun must agree with its antecedent in both number as well
as gender. Baron gives us the example

                                          Everyone loves his

issue with this phrase, as Baron explains it, is that although his (being singular) agrees in number
with its antecedent, everyone, it
fails to meet the gender-agreement part of the pronoun-antecedent rule, since everyone is an indefinite, singular
pronoun that could refer to either gender. By this rule, using singular they would not be any more correct, as
it would fail the number-agreement part of the pronoun-antecedent rule, they being plural while everyone is singular.

[insert Loosely connected images, displaying prescriptivism]


Modern day conversations place more
of an emphasis on the question of inclusivity as opposed to convention. The Merriam-Webster
dictionary recognizes that “Though singular they
is old, they as a non-binary pronoun
is new. [It is used] for a person whose gender is known, but who does not
identify as male or female”. Kristen Hare, a media journalist at
Poynter Institute, echoes this observation when
she speaks of print media. In 2014, the Wall
Street Journal
began allowing the use of singular they to refer to contributors that did not identify with a specific
gender. Soon afterwards, the New York
and Washington Post followed.
More and more Universities and Colleges are also making changes to school
policies to include gender-neutral pronouns for students to choose from in
their registration processes.  Data
collected indicates they as one of
the main choices made by gender non-conforming students.

Eastwood writes, in his Oxford Guide to
English Grammar
, that in modern times the
use of he as a common gender pronoun
is “less common than it used to be.” Eastwood is of the opinion that singular they is “neater than [her or she]” and is common in informal

academics and grammarians have mixed views, however. Some still recommend using
the generic he or she coordinate with
singular, indefinite antecedents—or avoiding pronouns altogether. Dictionaries
such as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary
list the singular use of they as
being “disputed,” though popular, while the Merriam-Webster
dictionary lists it as a respectable secondary option to the old convention,
citing that it’s been used in
both literary and formal contexts alike.
Despite all the recent acceptance in the mainstream, authors Patricia T.
O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman feel that although singular they has a long history in usage, it still has a long way to go
before becoming universally accepted.

light of this history, we are left with a question of what to do while the
natural process of language evolution takes place. For the time being, when it
comes to singular they, choosing to
subscribe to the prescriptivist or descriptivist view appears to be a matter of
personal preference. As a student of literature, an aspiring writer, and
someone who identifies as a member of the trans community, I too share the
mixed feelings of many others. I used to think that the rejection of singular they was driven purely by transphobia. I
can see now that this assumption was largely the result of having grown up with
the modern usage and attitudes.  I’ve learned that this fight
was always more about linguistics and the rules of grammar than intentional transphobia.
Although one does have to wonder whether things might’ve been different if non-binary
people came out back when these rules were being made…

While trans people may not
have been part of the picture back when more people were closeted, in
today’s world the use of pronouns cannot be entirely removed from its implications for the trans community.


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