Tuesday, 11 June 2024 11:54

Inclusive language: the singular ‘they’

Written by Claire Niven

SingularThey 1

Let’s look at some grammar rules that have been slowly changing… or maybe it feels like things have been changing so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. As the former copy chief of Random House Benjamin Dreyer says, ‘one can either be on the bus or under the bus’. So, I suggest we buy a ticket and get on board!

What is the singular ‘they’?

The singular ‘they’ is a gender-neutral, third-person pronoun. Until recently, lots of editors (and style guides) clung to the notion that ‘they’ was only plural. This was often at odds with how people were actually speaking.

A person should enjoy their holidays.

The noun in this sentence is the singular ‘person’, and the pronoun is the third person plural ‘their’. This doesn’t stack up grammatically in terms of the agreement between singular and plural words. It was considered an error by traditional grammatists and deemed less appropriate in formal writing. But this structure was commonly used in English every day.

To avoid the plural pronoun, writers had to resort to awkward phrases like ‘he and she’ or, worse still, ‘s/he’. A person should enjoy his or her holiday.

As well as sounding clunky, this second sentence also gives us another problem. It presumes that the person uses either ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns. But not everyone identifies as male or female, so it’s important to avoid these binary representations of gender.

Singular ‘they’ for a known person

While the singular ‘they’ has been in wide usage as a third-person pronoun for a person of unspecified gender, most style guides now advocate for singular ‘they’ as a non-binary identifier for a specific person. This is because it’s inclusive of all people and helps to avoid assumptions about gender. The American Dialect Society chose the singular ‘they’ as their Word of the Year in 2015, defining it as ‘a gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a non-binary identifier’. Merriam-Webster added the non-binary ‘they’ to its dictionary in 2019.

How to use it in practice

When a singular ‘they’ is the subject of a sentence, ‘they’ takes a plural verb regardless of whether ‘they’ is meant to be singular or plural. For example, write ‘they are’, not ‘they is’. It’s the same if a person identifies as gender neutral or non-binary, with ‘they’ as a pronoun. For example, ‘I really like Sam. They always have something fun to say.’

Think of it like this – the singular ‘they’ works similarly to the singular ‘you’ – even though ‘you’ may refer to one person or multiple people. You would never write ‘you is’ instead of ‘you are’. So, if the noun in a sentence is a word like ‘individual’ or a person’s name, you use a singular verb. For example, Sarah is a gender-fluid person, not Sarah are a gender-fluid person.

The singular ‘they’ also encompasses the use of the related pronouns and determiners them, their, theirs and themselves. In ‘The Chicago Manual of Style’ 17th edition, section 5.48, it says ‘themself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular (though some people will prefer themselves)’.

How to avoid using it and should you?

Some people might ask, what if I don’t like the singular ‘they’ – do I have to use it? It’s a valid question.

I would answer that if you are writing about a person who uses ‘they’ as their pronoun, then yes, you have to use it. Respectful and inclusive language is important.

However, there are many other ways to write grammatical and inclusive sentences.

For example, you can rewrite a sentence in the plural to use plural pronouns: People should enjoy their holidays.

Or you can rewrite the sentence so that it does not use pronouns at all. A person should enjoy holidays or Holidays should be enjoyable.

It’s worth noting that the ‘Trans Journalists Association Stylebook and Coverage Guide’ says that it is both unnecessary and disrespectful to take pains to write around using someone’s pronouns, such as to avoid the singular they. They say: ‘Avoiding pronouns is almost always more conspicuous to the reader than using they/them.’

Inclusive language isn’t merely a matter of grammar; it’s a reflection of respect and acknowledgment of diverse identities.

Further reading

This article about the struggle with the singular ‘they’ is very interesting: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/articles/old-they-new-they-language-change-in-action/

Trans Journalists Association’s Stylebook and Coverage Guide

APA style

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Blog post by: Claire Niven

Website: www.echt-english.nl

LinkedIn: echt-english


Read 246 times Last modified on Friday, 05 July 2024 09:27

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