Our centuries-old use of "they" as a singular pronoun


I’ve always informally used “they” when specific gender was unknown, going back as far as I can remember.

Now I’ll use people’s preferred pronouns, whenever possible.


They don’t want to use people’s preferred pronouns if they don’t comport with their own bigoted and short-sighted notions of gender. It’s as simple as that. it’s not about grammar, because it’s never really about grammar. when people use grammar as an excuse to attack people, it’s usually because they want to shut them up. This is an extension of that.


Aye… and if one is not a button-pushing asshole whose aim is to actively be disrespectful, course correction is so easy, even a Klingon can do it;


An old Klingon too!


Vinny, over on 12th Ave.: “Yo! I pull 80 thou a year!”


How about “y’all”? I’ve definitely seen people from the south use it for the logical plural use as well as when referring to individuals.


I love the English language, because it is so versatile and has no “language authority” specifying what is right and wrong (unlike my native Danish). However, it would be so nice if there were a neutral 3. person singular, so we could avoid this whole issue.
In DK, we used to use “they”, but as 2. person singular. This was a sign of respect/authority, so f.ex. we use it when talking to royalty and old people. I still remember being instructed to use it, when talking to old ladies, when I trained to be a bookseller and I hated it, because it implied that these people were somehow better and deserved respect just because they were old. As a child of the 70’s, we learned that respect should be earned, not automatically assigned.
Now, the problem with “they” in English is that it so easily slips into 2. person singular. As an example, I watched Star Trek Discovery last night, where they dealt with this. Stamets correctly use “they” when referring to Adira Tal as they sleep, but when they wake up, he keeps using “they” instead of “you”. I guess that we do sometimes refer to people using 3. person, even when they are in the conversation, but that seems very dismissive.
Another issue with “they” is that you can’t use it for everyone, only those that request it, which means you have to remember peoples preferred pronouns. With he/she, there’s generally some indication of what to use, so you don’t have to constantly recall the correct term. Again, a general gender neutral pronoun would be preferred (I do like the Swedish solution, but it’s a bit cumbersome in Danish).
Yet another issue, is that “they” is plural. It’s fine when talking about an unknown person (the “tell them to come in” example), but when talking about a specific person, it’s easy to become confused (“they are coming to the party”, so is it one or several people coming?).
Of course, it’s not much of an issue compared to what else is going on and I try my best to use the correct pronouns (although it doesn’t help that I’ve never learned grammar :slight_smile: ), but if someone could come up with a good gender neutral catch-all for 3. person singular, that would be great.

Also, combared to Spanish, English have very few issues regarding this. I remember trying to learn Spanish when living in Tenerife and one of the things that really annoyed my feminist brain, was that everything was gendered, with the masculine being the catch-all (so, niño=boy, niña=girl, niños=children (of both genders).

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This is a separate problem, that of neutral they vs non-binary they. I grew up with an English dialect that used neutral singular they and I often default to that especially as I also grew up with painful experiences of being a young trans person. I would rather be called they than by male pronouns, even if they are doing it to avoid calling me a woman at least they aren’t calling me a man. If someone explicitly told me not to call them they, then I would try to remember their wishes.

I know that I don’t speak for everyone though.

Wikipedia has a list of neutral and non binary singular pronouns. If you haven’t heard of any of them then that might explain why they has been accepted. After they, ze/hir are the ones I am most familiar with and I have only known a few people who used them.

As I said above, it is a won battle. We just need to adapt to it’s imperfections, like we have adapted to all the other imperfections in the English language.




I really like the argument that the King James Bible uses singular they, because the people who don’t like being polite about singular they or other pronouns tend to be religious, and often Protestant (I don’t know if the Douay uses it or not), and consider it to be really really authoritative about many things even if they prefer newer translations from better sources for everyday use.

It also goes well with the argument that, as thou knowest, English has been using singular they longer than singular you.

(I think it’s in Leviticus or Deuteronomy somewhere; don’t have the reference handy.)


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