The Atlantic's Case for the Singular, Gender-Neutral 'They'—in 1879

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, The Washington Post told writers it was OK to use “they” as a singular, non-gender specific pronoun when unavoidable:

When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.

As Post style superintendent Bill Walsh’s example suggests, this usage tends to engender (so to speak) strong feelings. Style disagreements are no laughing matter, and the Post’s change—especially paired with The New York Times’s roughly simultaneous ratification of “Mx.,” a neologistic transgender pronoun—has the traditionalists rending their garments, to say nothing of their morning papers.

Yet as Hobsbawm and Ranger taught, tradition is often an invention. Dennis Baron, aka Dr. Grammar, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, just tweeted a passage from the February 1879 edition of The Atlantic. The writer makes a commonsense case for the singular, gender-neutral “them” and “they”:

Who was the author of this prescient passage, presaging today’s debates about neuter pronouns? Unfortunately, the article (like many in that era) is unsigned, so he she they will remain nameless.