One of my colleagues and I get into heated debates in the hall about whether or not the pronoun "they" can be singular. I say it can, and he vehemently disagrees.
What we’re talking about here is often called the “singular generic pronoun question.” In English, we have the pronoun “he” for males, “she” for females, and “it” for inanimate objects; but what do you do when you're referring to a person of unknown or unspecified gender?
We could take a sentence like, “A teacher should learn _____ students’ names.”
“His” suggests the teacher is male. “Her” suggests the teacher is female. “His or her” seems a bit cumbersome. So what do we do? In the spoken language many of us would say, “A teacher should learn their students’ names.” We would use the singular “they.”
Now some people will retort that “they” cannot be singular. Here's my evidence that it can. Let’s imagine I say to you, “I was talking to a friend of mine and they said it's a terrible movie.” For most people, that sentence would go unremarked. I was talking to “a” friend of mine and “they” said something about the movie. I'm clearly talking about one person. Perhaps I don’t want you to know whether that person is male or female, or it doesn't matter, or the friend’s gender does not fit into a male-female binary. And so I say “they.” A singular “they.”
What about the argument that it's impossible for a pronoun to be both singular and plural at the same time? Well, I would say we already have evidence in the language that it's very possible. Let’s take the second-person pronoun “you.” The pronoun “you” can be singular: if I’m talking to one person, I would say, “You are very wonderful.” The pronoun “you” can be plural: if I'm talking to a whole group of people, I would (or could) say, “You are very wonderful.” (Of course, many varieties of English now include new second-person plural forms such as “y’all,” “yinz,” and “you guys.”) And standard varieties of English use the same verb “are” (i.e., “you are”) for both one person and many people.
“They” has done the same thing as “you” in terms of taking on both a singular and plural meaning. And it’s actually been doing that for centuries. Jane Austen used singular “they”; Shakespeare used singular “they.” I have found examples of singular “they” going back into the Middle English period (Chaucer’s era).
So English speakers solved the problem of how to refer to a person of unknown or unspecified gender a long time ago. It was the eighteenth century when grammarians told English speakers and writers that singular “they” was not a good idea, not “correct grammar,” and that we should use “he” as a generic instead. It was the 1970s with second-wave feminism that singular “he” was (accurately) identified as sexist, and many style guides recommended that we use “he or she” (or rewrite the sentence entirely to avoid the construction). And many of us may still use “he or she” or “s/he” when we write. But when we speak, we tend to use “they”; multiple studies have shown that the vast majority of the time most of us use singular “they.”
So it's a problem that we as English speakers have already solved. The interesting question is, at what point will we be told that we’re allowed to write singular “they” down in more formal, edited contexts? And if you watch closely, you’ll see that singular “they” is becoming more and more common. You’ll now see singular “they” in newspapers and magazines, and sometimes even academic prose, as it slowly makes its way into more formal writing, out of the speech that we use every day.
Anne Curzan is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also has faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.