Singular They? Thou Art Welcome!

By 6th January 2017PR Savvy, Word Savvy

It all started with a piece of slightly odd graffiti in Lisbon featuring ‘themselfs’ and then we overheard someone in the office saying ‘we prefer to do it ourself’. Since then Words Nerd has been on the look-out for comments on singular they. We reckon you do it, even if you don’t think you do. It often crops up in phrases like this: ‘Everyone had finished their work’. Pendants would say this should be ‘his work’ or ‘his or her work’, because ‘everyone’ is singular. But ‘his or her’ is cumbersome and the ‘their’ slides easily into the phrase.

It can also help to gloss over a lack of knowledge, when the gender of the subject isn’t clear: ‘Can you make sure the new teacher has their laptop set up’? Recently, we came across a journalist request which used singular they even though the gender was obvious:

‘Looking for an older female to discuss their thoughts and attitude towards their alcohol consumption following news today that over 50s are drinking themselves into an early grave’.

Eek! Now Words Nerd is progressive enough not to think that this is a grammar fault, but see it as an interesting development in the language. Why has the journalist not said ‘her attitude’? Is this an attempt to distance the woman from her alcohol consumption? Does it make it more impersonal? Or is singular they becoming so common that ‘her’ sounds a bit odd?

On the whole we like singular they. It sounds natural, it’s not confusing, and it’s not going away either. Tom Freeman’s research of published and edited books shows that its use is on the rise; “in both UK and US books, there has been a big rise in singular “their” since the 1970s. It overtook generic “his” in the early 1990s”. He suggests that taking against singular they is odd, because we happily accept singular we. He uses the example: ‘Each one of us will have our own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on’.
The problem with taking against singular they is that it’s so easy to err. Over on Buzzfeed, Tom Chivers spots the casual use of singular they in the middle of a piece decrying it (and don’t even think about arguing against the passive). For those who love a list, here it is: 11 Times Grammar Pedants Got All Their Pedantry Wrong –

There will always be pedants in the workplace gleefully picking over your text for supposed errors. But we think it’s acceptable for business use, because it’s extremely useful for avoiding a faltering ‘his or her’ moment, it gets around the now archaic-sounding generic ‘he’ and slots imperceptibly into everyone/no-one phrases.

On balance we tend to agree with the brilliant Stan Carey  ‘New rule! Anyone who objects to singular ‘they’ on the basis of logic or grammar has to avoid singular ‘you’ as well. Thou’rt welcome’.