At the end of last year, I was catching up with an aunt who is an English teacher. Politics came up, as is inevitable around the holidays, and I asked her how she felt about the use of they/them pronouns to refer to a single person.
“It doesn’t matter how I feel about them,” she responded. “It’s just not correct grammar.”
I wondered if she was right. Certainly, I was taught growing up that they and them are plural pronouns used to refer to more than one person or thing. However, language is created by humans, and therefore, humans have the power to change language as they wish. Of course, a single person cannot suddenly decide upon a new definition for a word. The point of language is interpersonal communication, which is only successful when parties who speak the same language know the same definitions of words and how they are used.
The documentation of that widespread agreement can be found in style guides and dictionaries. Ooligan bases our style guide off of The Chicago Manual of Style, so I looked up what it says about singular they/them. In CMOS 5.48 it says:
…because he is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, people commonly (in speech and in informal writing) substitute the third-person-plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves (or the nonstandard singular themself). While this usage is accepted in those spheres, it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.
This explanation validates the singular they/them as grammatically correct. While Chicago is growing to embrace they/them, there is still some hesitation in using plural they/them, “As of the 17th edition, CMOS recognizes that such usage is gaining acceptance in formal writing but still advises avoiding it if possible—for example, by rewriting to use the plural (see CMOS 5.255).”
Knowing that different style guides have different recommendations based on the disciplines they cater to, I checked the American Psychological Association‘s (APA) guide. It turns out that they endorse the use of singular they with no holds barred “because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.”
The APA cited Merriam-Webster’s acceptance of the word, and sure enough, the definition of they in this dictionary includes usage “with a singular antecedent to refer to an unknown or unspecified person; to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed; [and] to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” In other words, according to Merriam-Webster, singular they/them is grammatically correct. In addition, they was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019, as “the nonbinary pronoun sense of ‘they’ was added in September 2019.”
To me, the growing acceptance of singular they/them is a relief. I always found it tedious when I was growing up to write he/she or (s)he when referring to a hypothetical person whose gender was irrelevant to the topic. These phrases were clunky and interrupted the flow of my writing, but as a person using she/her pronouns, I never felt that generic he was an appropriate alternative. Not only do they/them give gender-nonconforming people a way to refer to themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable, but they also give writers an innately gender-neutral way to prevent disjointed writing.
The pronouns are in the awkward growing stage as their new usage continues to gain acceptance and faces pushback. It will take time for some folks, like my aunt, to accept the change when they have been using they/them a different way for their whole lives. Even Google Docs is trying to autocorrect the sample sentence at the end of this blog post. Still, I daresay that in twenty years no one will bat an eye at the sentence, “They are a really good teacher.”
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