It is a well-known truth among linguists that so long as English is changing — which it always is — there will be people who are belly-aching about it, warning that if things keep going as they are, the language will soon be on life support and, as likely as not, dead within the year.
Critics feared for the future when people started using contact as a verb in the 1920s and when they embraced text-speak like OMG in the 2000s. And for centuries, they have lamented the usage of one pronoun in particular: singular they.
“Depending on who’s complaining,” writes linguistics scholar Dennis Baron, author of the forthcoming book What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He & She, out Jan. 21, “singular they is anything from a minor sin to evidence of complete illiteracy, moral decay, even the end of civilization as we know it.”
Yet, rather than cleaving the societal fabric, the linguistic “mistakes” of one era often have a way of proving perfectly correct by the next. And Baron lays out a thorough argument that the tide has turned for singular they. “At this point,” he writes, “resistance is futile.”
Why? Because necessity is the mother of adoption, and while debate about the word may seem new, singular they has been on an “inexorable forward march,” as Baron puts it, since the Middle Ages.
For centuries, poets and pundits have observed that English is missing a word: a gender-neutral, third-person pronoun that could be used in place of he or she when gender is unknown or irrelevant. They has long been proposed as the answer: It’s a familiar word that happens to leave gender out of the frame. The masses regularly use it in a singular way in casual conversation, as in, “Did they leave a message?” or “They cut me off!” or “Pffffhhhh, I guess they didn’t get the memo.” Writers, from Austen to Shakespeare, have used it too.
But grammarians have considered singular they unfit for print, holding fast to the rule that educated people use they only as a plural and, therefore, helping to make this the case everywhere from the classroom to the op-ed column.
In his book, Baron breaks down why no other word can fill the “pronoun gap” like they can. Using he to include both men and women doesn’t actually include women; it renders them linguistic understudies, invisible and secondary. In the past, the pronoun he has even been used by lawyering types to exclude women from polls, professions and various legal privileges. To this day, Baron writes, “the constitutional meaning of he remains far less certain than it should be.”
Generic she, meanwhile, can feel political, which is great if one’s message is also political but potentially distracting if one’s message is not. Alternating he and she is confusing. Using both — as in he or she and him or her — is abhorred as clunky and tedious. It is dehumanizing. And one sounds pretentious. (See: the first sentence of this paragraph.)
The last part of Baron’s book offers an unparalleled chronology of invented pronouns, more than 200 words that he collected during decades of research. Bent on avoiding singular they, English speakers have been proposing made-up words to fill the gap since 1770. But trying to force people to adopt an invented word is like trying to make an airplane fly by yelling at it. Even the cleverest ones, like thon (a combination of that and one), didn’t take off. Gender-neutral neologisms like ha, hizzer, E, shim, thare, um and ita never even left the hangar.
All the while singular they has been lurking in the background. And now it’s moving to the fore. A driving force has been the LGBTQ community, which has embraced singular they not only to include both men and women but also to refer to non-binary people who identify as neither. That has added social conservatives to the word’s detractors, but has also given it steam. The new binary-busting usage made it the American Dialect Society’s “Word of the Year” in 2015 and then Merriam-Webster’s in 2019.
It also helped inspire linguistic authorities to put down their red pens. In 2015, the Washington Post copy desk announced that the paper would start allowing singular they. In 2017, the AP Stylebook approved it “when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.” The same year, the Chicago Manual of Style said that if an individual prefers to be referred to as they, then they is the preferred style. And each evolution has added to the sense that this usage isn’t just convenient, it’s also grammatically okay.
Bryan Garner, author of the famed usage guide Garner’s Modern English Usage, describes the word’s viral adoption in recent years as being, at least in part, the result of social pressure: In this case, the demands about what “ought” to be acceptable are coming from progressives rather than school teachers. Though he predicted in the ’90s that singular they would prevail, he says he is surprised that LGBTQ rights proved the tipping point. “It used to be that the he-or-she folks were progressive,” he writes to TIME, “now their ‘binary’ usage is considered distinctly unwoke.”
Though fights about the pronoun rage on in some corners, there’s a good chance our grandchildren will find it hard to believe singular they was even a controversial thing. Consider a few other popular words that were once ugly ducklings. In the 1970s, the American Heritage Dictionary asked language experts if this new verb people were using, prioritize, was acceptable; 96.7% said no. In the 1990s, they were asked if a new usage of grow — as in, “our strategy is to grow our business” — was okay; 80% said no.
Back in the 1600s, uninterested (indifferent) and disinterested (impartial) had opposite meanings from what they do now. Spitting image, according to one theory, is a 20th-century corruption of spit and image (from the notion that God made Adam in his likeness out of clay, which he made from spit and dust), yet one would be hard-pressed to find the “correct” version in print today.
The most apt example, though, is you. This second-person pronoun was once used solely to refer to groups of people or the likes of a king. Eventually non-royal individuals started to see it as a respectful way to refer to one another as well, and despite much booing and hooing among those who would preserve thou, the practice took.
“Variation and change are natural, normal and inevitable for any language,” Baron writes. They ain’t kidding.