The Singular They

One year, one of my students gave me a notepad as a gift. It said,

“A teacher never knows how far their influence reaches.”

I thanked him sincerely, though I was secretly appalled that this little notepad had gone through all the stages of being created, marketed, shelved, and sold without anyone catching the error. And he bought it in a store for teachers! Come on, people.

I waited for my next hour class to write the sentence on the board and cross my arms until someone could tell me what was wrong with it. They were eleventh graders. They eventually figured it out, but it took them a while. I realized that they were struggling because the use of the singular their/they is so common that we don’t hear it as wrong. I hear it because I spent so many years marking it wrong on papers.

However, as it turns out, I may have been the one in the wrong (although, the disagreement was so glaring, but anyway…). Proponents of singular they have long argued that the prohibition makes no sense. It has been used in English for centuries, mainly due to a lack of a gender-neutral pronoun. Authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Thackeray, and Shaw used the singular they, and it’s even in the King James Bible. Before the production of school textbooks for grammar in the nineteenth century, no one complained about it or even noticed it. Some linguists make the case that avoiding it is awkward or necessitates sexist language.

Ben Zimmer explains in his Wall Street Journal article,

Lately, transgender issues have been driving the call for a more inclusive pronoun. The singular “they” avoids having to assign a static role to someone transitioning from one gender to another. And many who identify as transgender or “gender fluid” would prefer the use of the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she.”

The Washington Post agrees. The singular they has not only been given official approval in the 2015 version of The Washington Post Style Manual , but was also declared Word Of The Year (who knew?) at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting. Apparently it beat out “thanks Obama,” ammosexual (one who feels affection for firearms), “on fleek” (excellent, impeccable), and CRISPR (gene-editing technology allowing biologists to alter and control DNA sequences).

The singular they has come up in the world and English teachers everywhere have one less niggling mechanical error to worry about. And, yes, I just ended that sentence with a preposition. Call The Washington Post!