A Word, Please: Singular ‘they’ inches closer to commonplace

This just in: The Associated Press Stylebook now allows “they” as a singular pronoun in some cases.

AP made the big announcement late last month. Reactions were varied, with most of them solidly in the “What? Leave me alone. ‘The Walking Dead’ is on” camp. Others reacted with silence, having never heard the news at all.

But if you’re still reading, you’re probably one of the people who cares or at least wants to understand what this means for our language. If you care, you might care a lot.

Passions run high on whether you can say, “Everyone should make sure they lock their car and take their keys with them” as opposed to “Everyone should make sure he or she locks his or her car and takes his or her keys with him or her.”

I’d guess most people would choose the former in any situation where recasting the sentence was not an option. It’s just more practical.

But on the other side of the aisle, plenty have a real problem with how the words “they,” “their” and “them” are used in that sentence.

Historically, “they” is considered plural. Pronouns are supposed to agree in number with their antecedents.

But in our example sentence, “they” refers to “everyone,” which is grammatically singular. For many people, this makes singular “they,” as in our example, above a grammatical error.

On top of that, verbs are supposed to agree with their subjects. So using “they” as a singular subject can make for some weird verb situations.

Compare “Everyone is invited” to “Everyone is sure they are invited.” The verb had to change form even though the subject is still the singular “everyone.” Awkward, no doubt.

But unfortunately for people who’d like to halt the steady advance of singular “they,” this is how language evolves. A need arises, speakers and writers fill the need in whatever way comes naturally, and change gets underway.

The best example is the word “girl,” which used to mean a child of either sex but today means a female child. We can imagine this caused some confusion for a while. But the English language came through it all just fine. Today, no one is confused by the word “girl.”

Singular “they” fills a need. English doesn’t have third-person pronoun that’s both singular and non-gender specific. He or she are the only singular options.

Back when the sexes had more disparate roles in society, this wasn’t a problem. If the subject of the sentence wasn’t a known person, it was often safe to make assumptions about which pronoun to use. “The attorney we hire should make sure he arrives at his desk on time.” “The laundress should make sure she finishes her work before taking her break.”

These days, women are allowed into law school and I’ve even heard tell of men doing laundry. So, if you’re talking about a lawyer whose identity isn’t known, it’s a little rude (or perhaps revealing) to assume it will be a man.

One solution is to accommodate everyone: “The attorney we hire should make sure he or she arrives at his desk on time.” But that can get very tedious very fast.

Over the last several centuries, people have been proposing solutions in the form of made-up gender-neutral pronouns. “Hu” and “hiser” are two that never took off. Engineered modifications to the language never do. Language moves as a force of nature, solving problems quite nicely in the long term.

That’s why people started using “they” when they needed a singular pronoun to refer to someone whose sex was unknown.

That’s why dictionaries started recognizing this practice many years ago. And that’s why AP’s latest nod is just another step toward a destination we were heading for anyway.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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