By Erin Kelly, Sara Humphreys, Natalie Boldt, and Nancy Ami
Rules to consider are those that vary not just based on the particular group to whom you are writing, but also those that are open to debate. A good example of this sort of rule is the case of what is now called “singular they.”
If you were learning English grammar in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries (the 1700s or the 1800s), you would have been taught that a pronoun must agree with its antecedent. In plain English: a pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun—it needs to match that noun in some important ways. This rule leads to the following sorts of examples:
- CORRECT: The box is heavy, so it will break the table. (“It” agrees with “box” in that it is singular in number—there is ONE box—and it stands in for things, like boxes but not people.)
- CORRECT: Students must bring their books to class. (“Their” agrees with “students” in that there is more than one student and they/their/them stands in for people.)
- CORRECT: Thomas doesn’t like to read; he prefers to play cricket. (“He” agrees with “Thomas” in that it is singular in number and gender. Thomas is traditionally a male name, and he is a pronoun for male people.)
So far, so good. But what if you want to refer to one person in a group that includes both men and women and some non-binary people?
According to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century rules, you would be given the following examples:
- ERROR: Each writer must bring to the act of writing poetry their wit and imagination.
- CORRECT: Each writer must bring to the act of writing poetry his wit and imagination.
- ERROR: Each writer must bring to the act of writing poetry her wit and imagination.
The logic underpinning these examples is that “each writer” is singular (one writer), so “their” is a mistake because it doesn’t agree in number. But what’s wrong with “her”? After all, there were male and female poets in the 1600s and 1700s. Had you asked this question, a teacher might have patiently explained to you that the male singular pronoun (he/his) is universal—it can stand in for a singular male person (like Thomas) or for a generic, neutral human being who might happen to be male or female. The female singular pronoun can’t do the same thing. Popular thinking at the time was that gender doesn’t matter when it comes to pronouns in the same way it does in relation to people. “He” can stand in for any person.
By the twentieth century, feminists had persuaded a lot of people that it is problematic to see the male pronoun as “universal.” If it’s okay to have a singular pronoun stand in for any example of a person, some asked, why does it need to always and only be the male pronoun? Doesn’t this sort of language suggest to women that they don’t really count (much in the same way that terms like “fireman” or “chairman” imply that the jobs we now more commonly refer to as “firefighter” or “chair” are only for men)? In their efforts to create more gender inclusive (sometimes also called gender neutral) language, they offered the following alternatives:
- CORRECT: Each writer must bring to the act of writing poetry his or her wit and imagination. (Adding “or her” makes the sentence more gender inclusive, and both “his” and “her” are singular, just like “Each writer.”)
- CORRECT: Each writer must bring to the act of writing poetry his/her wit and imagination. (The slash in “his/her” here stands in for “or” and thus conveys the same meaning as the previous example—but in a more concise way.)
- CORRECT: Each writer must bring to the act of writing poetry her/his wit and imagination. (The slash in “her/his” here stands in for “or” and has the same significance as in the previous example—but putting “her” first implies that the male pronoun doesn’t always need to take precedence, much less be seen as universal.)
- CORRECT: Each writer must bring to the act of writing poetry her wit and imagination. (Here the pronoun matches the referent in number; both are singular. And if the “gender” of a pronoun doesn’t really matter, then why not use “her”?)
- CORRECT: All writers must bring to the act of writing poetry their wit and imagination. (An easy easy way to make English sentences more gender inclusive is to revise to make the nouns being referred to plural—that way, one can use “they/their”: a pronoun that is not only plural but also doesn’t indicate gender. A group of men, a group of women, or a group of men and women can all be referred to as “they.”)
For most readers, gender-biased language (such as referring to all people as “he”) seems odd, maybe even wrong. But there may still be some debates about which of the “correct” options above is best—some find “his or her” unnecessarily wordy while others find “his/her” awkward.
And in the past twenty years or so, truly gender-neutral singular pronouns have been suggested as a way of allowing writers and speakers to refer to an individual person whose gender is not known or who identifies as non-binary. You might see or hear the following:
- Ze, xe, se, ey, vey, ver, tey, e, ou (instead of he or she)
- Zim, xem, sie, em, ver, ter, eir, hir (instead of him or her)
The development that seems most likely to stick is the use of the existing pronoun “they” as a gender-neutral singular. This change means seeing the following examples as correct:
- CORRECT: Each writer must bring to the act of writing poetry their wit and imagination.
- CORRECT: When a student writes a successful essay, the instructor will ask them to submit this piece of work for the annual writing award.
- CORRECT: A scientist can get into trouble by being too sure of what they can do alone.
- CORRECT: My friend Blake takes their schoolwork very seriously.
In all of these cases, the pronoun “they” (or variations on it like “their” and “them”) refers back to a person (singular) whose gender is unknown and/or to a person who identifies as non-binary. Depending on your reading experiences, these sentences might seem unremarkable, strange, or even examples of grammatical errors.
But singular they is not only becoming more widely accepted but also allowed (and increasingly endorsed) by some important style guides for academic and journalistic writing such as APA, AP, and MLA. A further example is that most university style guides (for writing internal memos, marketing materials and so on) follow inclusive grammar protocols. Of course, you need to make your decisions based on the rhetorical situation and context. This is where your rhetorical skills come into play along with your knowledge of grammar.
- If you want to see more options and learn more about the history, dating back at least to the nineteenth century, to create a widely accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun in English, read Dennis E. Barron’s article “The Epicene Pronoun: The Word that Failed” in American Speech 56, no. 2 (1981): 83-97, DOI: 10.2307/455007 or his more recent article in The Globe and Mail: “The Canadian Politics—and History—of ‘He,’ ‘She’ and ‘They,’” February 21, 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-canadian-politics-and-history-of-he-she-and-they/. ↵
- See, for example, the following statements issued by these organisations: “Singular They,” APA Style, American Psychological Association, accessed September 14, 2020, https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/grammar/singular-they; Karen Hare, “AP Style Change: Singular They is Acceptable in ‘Limited Cases’,” Poynter, March 24, 2017, https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2017/ap-style-change-singular-they-is-acceptable-in-limited-cases/; “How Do I Use Singular They?” MLA Style Center, Modern Language Association, March 4, 2020, https://style.mla.org/using-singular-they/. ↵
- By way of example, check out the University of Victoria’s “Editorial Style Guide”: https://www.uvic.ca/communicationsmarketing/assets/docs/style-guide-web.pdf ↵