Grammar of the Day – Epicene They
Some style guides are beginning to accept the epicene they. We’ll find out who, but first some groundwork. Epicene, in this case, means gender-free. English is a language with gender in its grammar. He-she, his-her, for example. This leads to clumsy or biased language. All the he/she, his/her, s/he, hir awkwardness has been unable to successfully replace the pretense that “he” can stand in for a gender-neutral pronoun. It is the third person singular pronoun that is a problem. We have the binary pronouns he and she for gender-specific third person singular application, and they for non-specific plural. But there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun for the job if the third person’s gender is unspecified.
English used to have a solution for the problem: the singular they. Beginning in the 14th century and continuing for 500 years, English speakers used “they” for the indefinite third person singular pronoun. Until this day it has continued in common speech and everyone knows what you mean when you use it. But in the 19th century linguists and grammarians took issue with it because they is plural. They decreed that we should use he, or even one.
Merriam Webster Dictionary – One common bugbear of the grammatical nitpicker is the singular they. For those who haven’t kept up, the complaint is this: the use of they as a gender-neutral pronoun (as in, “Ask each of the students what they want for lunch.”) is ungrammatical because they is a plural pronoun.
Oxford Dictionary – It happens when they, them, their, and themselves refer back to subjects that are grammatically singular.
“They” is making a comeback, and none too soon. It has been the correct choice in the case of indeterminate gender. “Does everyone have their life jacket?” Everyone is singular grammatically, and their is plural, but this usage is considered correct. Now it’s becoming more acceptable to use it to avoid assigning gender. “Do they have their lifejacket?” They and their are both ostensibly plural, but the subject is obviously singular. This usage, once frowned upon as ungrammatical and a sign of a lack of education, is returning to its proper and useful place. The result is a singular, non-binary they.
I’m glad because I made a conscious decision to use they this way when I began writing Green Comet.
This article on the Copyediting website discusses the Associated Press style guide moving toward accepting the singular, gender-neutral, third person they. The epicene they.
This Los Angeles Times article discussed the rise of the epicene they.