Their as Impersonal 3rd Person Singular

< Previous | Next >

aspen

New Member
English UK/US
Whenever I ask why I can't use 'they,' them,' and 'their' as singular gender neutral pronouns, I get the reply that I can't because they're plural, but no one seems to be able to give me a reason. It reminds me of parents telling their kids 'because I said so.' For my part, I don't see why you shouldn't be able to use them as singular, too. Besides, people are crying out for the need of gender neutral pronouns, but 'their' seems to be in common use already.

Why I think it can be used as a singular:
1. It's used everywhere.
2. People have to learn that it's plural .
3. It doesn't seem to cause any confusion.
4. I think it's been used for a couple of centuries.

Is there any hard evidence out there to support the claim that 'their' can only be plural?
 
  • Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Hi aspen and welcome to the forums.

    Excellent question!

    To me, the answer is "the norms of language reflect what people actually say". I certainly use "they" to refer to a singular subject. As do lots of other people.

    I suspect it won't be long before this is seen to be perfectly standard grammatically:)
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    The OED marks it "not favoured by grammarians", and has quotations containing its used going back to the 15th c. Grammarians have been holding out on this one for longer than usual!

    I think the "hard evidence" is that "they" etc., is plural. But such simple reasoning will not hold back the tide of usage. Grammarians tend to move with the times and no doubt at some point there will be few objectors left—say in a few hundred years.
     

    boosh_fan

    Member
    English-England
    i reckon if people can understand what you mean then people who object to it are being pedantic for no reason! i'm always saying things like 'i was talking to this person today and they were saying...' it makes sense and people understand...language is always changing to be more accessible and easy so why not?? :)
     

    toshev

    Senior Member
    Australia, English
    I can only justify its use (to myself) with somebody.

    If you ask somebody for the time and they refuse to tell you, it's their problem.
     

    estefanos

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    The singular usage of they/their is old and well-established. It's certainly preferable to his as the neuter pronoun, and it's also better than his or her. Shakespeare used it, and that's good enough for me!

    Here's a nice article on the usage: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they
     
    Last edited:

    Damnjoe

    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    Maybe it´s different in the UK or elsewhere in the world, but I was never told that "they" couldn´t be used for 3rd person singular. I was just told that, when writing a formal paper, it is better to use "he or she". This makes sense, because when writing a paper you are supposed to be as unambiguous as possible.

    But as an English teacher, I´ve always explicitly taught "they" for 3rd person singular. I don´t think that prohibition holds much force nowadays, particularly in speech.
     
    Last edited:

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    Count me as one of the pedants. I absolutely hate it. It's like chalk grating on a chalkboard for me.

    That said, this use has become increasingly popular in part because of the gender problem. While technically he means either he or she, that has become politically incorrect. Also, a growing number of people are of ambiguous gender these days, making they in the singular quite useful. I even know someone who has specifically said she prefers they as a pronoun to refer to herself as she is gender queer and doesn't want to decide.

    To put this as objectively as I can:

    INFORMAL COMMUNICATION
    Most Americans think it is perfectly acceptable. Some people like me find it horrendously annoying and even confusing at times. Overall, in informal communication you are probably fine even though you will annoy me.

    FORMAL COMMUNICATION If you're writing a book, or a newspaper article or for any professional publication or formal letter, if you write they as a 3rd person singular pronoun you will be corrected unless your editor is sleeping. In professional writing, this is still completely taboo and if you use it, it will reflect poorly on you. It may be that in time (maybe five or ten years) this will change, but for now, if you use this in any professional writing context you are needlessly making yourself look bad.

    BUSINESS/MODERATELY FORMAL WRITING. It's becoming more common, but it's still a risk. Most people you communicate with will have no issue with it, but there are still enough old-fashioned people like me that using the third person singular they could reflect poorly on you in business. When I hear this professionally (and even worse, read it) it doesn't necessarily make me think the person is an uneducated cretin, but it's going to take a bit more to impress me once I've heard that.

    It's easier than most people think to avoid the awkward he or she. Most of the time you can just make it plural.

    A member can pick up their card at the reception desk.:mad:
    Members can pick up their cards at the reception desk.:)
     

    Alby84

    Senior Member
    American English
    I agree. It'd be nice to have a standard neutral pronoun that you could use in formal writing without having to worry. And as people have already said, it's been used so extensively for such a long time that it's almost silly it isn't standard or at least acceptable in writing already.
     

    newg

    Senior Member
    (France)-ais
    FORMAL COMMUNICATION If you're writing a book, or a newspaper article or for any professional publication or formal letter, if you write they as a 3rd person singular pronoun you will be corrected unless your editor is sleeping. In professional writing, this is still completely taboo and if you use it, it will reflect poorly on you. It may be that in time (maybe five or ten years) this will change, but for now, if you use this in any professional writing context you are needlessly making yourself look bad.
    I agree. In academic papers, there is now this tendency to use she/her to refer to a person who we don't know the sex. If you refer to a speaker (or a listener) you can either refer to him or her and it won't be corrected.
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    This sentence implies that each person can get any number of cards when the original sentence states that each person gets one card. :(
    No, it doesn't imply each person can get multiple cards. It is simply not clear whether a member gets one card or more. That information is likely clear from context, which I didn't include. But yes, with every choice there are pros and cons. I prefer the second here both because of the avoidance of singular their and also just because it reads better.
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    I agree. It'd be nice to have a standard neutral pronoun that you could use in formal writing without having to worry. And as people have already said, it's been used so extensively for such a long time that it's almost silly it isn't standard or at least acceptable in writing already.
    There are, of course, such pronouns. Hir and Ze are pretty standard among certain types of groups: gay & lesbian, transgender, politically radical circles etc. It hasn't caught on in any mainstream way.

    I have a lot of friends who use they in the singular, in part for political reasons or to emphasize gender-queerness of the person being discussed. Some people find it easier as when friends change their preferred gender pronouns it gets hard to remember so it certainly can be easier just to call everyone "they."

    I hate it, both for grammatical reasons, but also because it causes occasional confusion. Actually fairly regular mild confusion. Like a friend may be talking about a woman we know and a gender-queer person we know who prefers a neutral pronoun. So my friend might be talking about Anne (female) and Leslie (gender neutral.) Then she says "They came over for dinner last night." And my response is who.... Anne and Leslie together, or just Leslie?
     

    Alby84

    Senior Member
    American English
    Artificially created pronouns never really catch on and there have been numerous attempts to implement such things in the past, but they just don't work. They don't sound natural. Being gay myself, I have no problem with the LGBT community using whatever phrases they wish among themselves or in publications, but to expect it to catch on with the general population sounds almost ignorant. I personally do not know any LGBT people who use these terms, but then again not many of them are writers or politically radical. I've never heard these pronouns used in speech.

    In terms of misunderstandings, this happens in formal speech and standard writing all the time. It's unavoidable and the best we can do is limit it where we spot it. We can't read minds so we really have no idea how one sentence may be interpreted by one person over the other.

    In terms of Leslie, she's the one who has to be more specific here if she chooses to use such pronouns. It seems you also answered your own question after she made the statement. You simply asked for clarification. If she's offended by this, well, that's her issue.
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    It's just that making a decision overall as a society to allow they to be used routinely as a singular gender-neutral pronoun adds ambiguity to the language we didn't have before. There's already enough ambiguity. I don't like changes that add more.

    And by the way, no, my friends aren't offended when the language is confusing and I ask for clarification. They would be offended if I "misgender" them ie. calling Leslie "she" when she prefers to be "they." I have no problem using whichever conventional pronoun (he or she) that people prefer, regardless of chromosome status. But I hate the "they" so much I frankly just avoid using any pronoun for such people. I just keep using Leslie all the time, or avoid bringing up Leslie at all.
     

    Alby84

    Senior Member
    American English
    It's just that making a decision overall as a society to allow they to be used routinely as a singular gender-neutral pronoun adds ambiguity to the language we didn't have before. There's already enough ambiguity. I don't like changes that add more.

    And by the way, no, my friends aren't offended when the language is confusing and I ask for clarification. They would be offended if I "misgender" them ie. calling Leslie "she" when she prefers to be "they." I have no problem using whichever conventional pronoun (he or she) that people prefer, regardless of chromosome status. But I hate the "they" so much I frankly just avoid using any pronoun for such people. I just keep using Leslie all the time, or avoid bringing up Leslie at all.
    That's rather unfortunate for Leslie as I doubt you're the only one who feels odd referring to them in such a way. I'd say the majority of transgendered people (at least that I've met), however, are comfortable with a regular he or she. I myself would find this usage rather confusing. Alas, I doubt we can really have that debate here as it's not the place for it (although I would find it rather interesting).

    Bottom line, I think Leslie's a special case here :)
     

    Embonpoint

    Senior Member
    English--American
    That's rather unfortunate for Leslie as I doubt you're the only one who feels odd referring to them in such a way. I'd say the majority of transgendered people (at least that I've met), however, are comfortable with a regular he or she. I myself would find this usage rather confusing. Alas, I doubt we can really have that debate here as it's not the place for it (although I would find it rather interesting).

    Bottom line, I think Leslie's a special case here :)
    I agree. Most transgender and genderqueer people are fine with ordinary pronouns. However I know two who really prefer they and that's two too many for me!

    But what does have a place here is that I think as a growing number of people switch their pronouns around (often before doing much in the way of actual transitioning), some people have taken recourse in calling everyone who is possibly ambiguous "they." The idea is to be respectful and avoid misgendering someone and since it is so hard to actually keep track of everyone's 'pronoun of the day' people take recourse in the singular they.

    As a result, even when we're not talking about the Leslie's of the world, I'm hearing a lot of single person theys in ordinary conversation and I'm not liking it.

    I never say anything, except here in WR, because doing so would imply that I'm not 'with the program.'
     

    Cenzontle

    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    To those of you who use "they" as a singular (and I include myself), please defy your spell-checker and incorporate "themself" into your vocabulary.
    Don't say things like "When a person sees themselves in a mirror..."
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    To those of you who use "they" as a singular (and I include myself), please defy your spell-checker and incorporate "themself" into your vocabulary.
    Don't say things like "When a person sees themselves in a mirror..."
    I disagree with this so so so so much that just thinking about it makes me stutter. Really. :) But in any case, we've had threads on this, too, and yeah, it's pretty much all been said:
    themself or themselves
    Themself?
     

    merquiades

    Senior Member
    English (USA Northeast)
    Count me as one of the pedants. I absolutely hate it. It's like chalk grating on a chalkboard for me.

    That said, this use has become increasingly popular in part because of the gender problem. While technically he means either he or she, that has become politically incorrect. Also, a growing number of people are of ambiguous gender these days, making they in the singular quite useful. I even know someone who has specifically said she prefers they as a pronoun to refer to herself as she is gender queer and doesn't want to decide.

    To put this as objectively as I can:

    INFORMAL COMMUNICATION
    Most Americans think it is perfectly acceptable. Some people like me find it horrendously annoying and even confusing at times. Overall, in informal communication you are probably fine even though you will annoy me.

    FORMAL COMMUNICATION If you're writing a book, or a newspaper article or for any professional publication or formal letter, if you write they as a 3rd person singular pronoun you will be corrected unless your editor is sleeping. In professional writing, this is still completely taboo and if you use it, it will reflect poorly on you. It may be that in time (maybe five or ten years) this will change, but for now, if you use this in any professional writing context you are needlessly making yourself look bad.

    BUSINESS/MODERATELY FORMAL WRITING. It's becoming more common, but it's still a risk. Most people you communicate with will have no issue with it, but there are still enough old-fashioned people like me that using the third person singular they could reflect poorly on you in business. When I hear this professionally (and even worse, read it) it doesn't necessarily make me think the person is an uneducated cretin, but it's going to take a bit more to impress me once I've heard that.

    It's easier than most people think to avoid the awkward he or she. Most of the time you can just make it plural.

    A member can pick up their card at the reception desk.:mad:
    Members can pick up their cards at the reception desk.:)
    :thumbsup:
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top