The Singular 'They' Must Be Stopped

The misused word is everywhere, proliferating like fruit flies 'round a bowl of rotting bananas. We must stop it before it goes too far.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Let's talk about something. Let's talk about the "singular" they. That's when a writer or a speaker — a he or a she — is discussing someone who might be either a he or a she (it's unknown, or the writer doesn't intend to make a subject or object gender-specific and instead hopes to convey a universality of personhood). So instead of writing, say, he or she did x or y, the writer uses theyIt's everywhere, proliferating like fruit flies 'round a bowl of rotting bananas, bad writing surrounding bad writing. Some examples:

"If someone is concerned about their mental health, they should seek professional help."

"If a person decides they like dubstep, that's really their prerogative."

"What do you say to a coworker when their attitude is just terrible?"

These all make me cringe, but it's a usage that has a fair number of supporters. In a post on The Economist's Grammar blog, R.L.G. examines the matter further, as inspired by grad student and blogger Freddie deBoer, who thinks we need to stop fighting the use of their as a singular pronoun. deBoer writes,

Using "their" for singular antecedents is one that I think people need to just give up on. As I've argued, it only occurs in a very limited set of circumstances, and those circumstances [are very] unlikely to produce confusion about what is meant. We all know what is intended in such a statement, to the point that most of us don't even notice it in spoken conversation. And as we lack a satisfying alternative, the usage is likely to persist. That's not to say that you shouldn't understand what the "rule" is, if only to be able to satisfy those gatekeepers that police it. (Don't use it in your resume, don't use it in your grade school application.) But this is an example of a gate that's not worth defending anymore.

R.L.G. takes it from there, explaining that they was used as a singular pronoun for centuries without anyone complaining (and by many notable crafters of language, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Swift). He adds that not only is the usage "very unlikely" to produce confusion, but also, it's "nearly literally impossible for singular they to be confusing in an actual conversation or in a longer piece of writing." Further, "that still doesn't prove singular they ungrammatical," he writes, concluding, along with deBoer and Bryan Garner, that the singular they is "the most convenient solution" to all of our pronoun trouble. A caveat or suggestion: "Use singular they in relaxed prose, when you know you're in the company of those who get this right, or if you don't mind annoying a determined and vocal minority."

Being one of that determined minority, I disagree. Don't use it at all. We must stop this, stop it before it goes too far.

I'm all for a certain flexibility and adaptive ease with regard to language and how we use it. I'm happy to add three exclamation points to a sentence or write in ALL CAPS when it seems to fit the moment, especially online. But I see absolutely no reason other than laziness to start subbing our hes and shes with a clunky they, or our hises and hers with theirs. There is a reason we have distinct pronouns, and that is so we can be specific. If we don't know the specifics, we should try to find them out, or use one of those handy words — he or she or one, for instance — that get around the they problem. Peppering one's sentences with some hes and shes can be kind of nice, really, a way to assemble a collection of characters who are certainly more real and individualized than a collective they.

There is criticism that the use of he as the generic pronoun is an example of linguistic sexism of a sort, and I agree there's no need to always use he as the default if you don't know the gender of the person about whom you are speaking, or if you're using the pronoun to stand for persons of either gender. You can just as easily swap in a she; mix it up! Make it fun! Keep people on their toes! Maybe even create a new word, and make it happen! The message that something should be easy, that we all understand anyway, that it doesn't really matter and we should give up the fight may be the most galling part of this argument, though. Since when was writing or creating art with words (if you're being high-minded) supposed to be convenient? Since when was past history the rule for how we live in the present and future? Break the rules if you must, for a purpose, to make an impact. Don't do something because it's easy and everyone else is doing it. If a word sounds like it's landing with a horrid thump in your ear, it's landing that way to at least some of your readers. Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches.

I have no issue with their used in its proper place, as a plural pronoun. That's completely fine, even necessary, and the usage is quite valuable. But why must we accept their as a singular? I say no. I say, use anything instead. Use he or she. Use one. Use a person's name. Or rewrite! Pluralize throughout, if you must, for consistency: 

"If PEOPLE ARE concerned about their mental health, they should seek professional help."

Even better, get rid of the they altogether.

"People who are concerned about their mental health should seek professional help."

But isn't it better with a he or she?

"Someone who is concerned about his mental health should seek professional help."

We know this already, but it bears repeating: The easy fix is not necessarily the best one, and they is not the solution to our pronoun ills. The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly. Stop the singular they. Stop it now.

*Note: I'm not ranting against use of they as a preferred gender pronoun, but instead, in (the more frequent) cases in which it's simply the easy way out, and, I think, indicative of sloppy writing. But as R.L.G. noted in the headline of his post, we all have our opinions on this issue.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.