Why I Like Singular They

Plenty of people talk about how singular they is incorrect. After all, “they” inherently refers to more than one person, right? Plenty of other people talk about how it’s awesome and they need to get over themselves. I fall into the latter camp. I like singular they a lot.

Why? Well…

  • First of all, singular they is correct.
    • It was correct for hundreds of years until some 18th-century grammarian decided against it. I’d like to note that she preferred the usage of a singular, “gender-neutral” he, which “comprehends both Male and Female.”. #Patriarchy, folks.
    • Before then, Chaucer used it. Jane Austen did too.
    • It’s even correct in AP style now! At least “in limited cases.” (For those who don’t know, AP style is one of the preferred standards for journalists nationwide.)
      • Unfortunately, the AP stylebook still doesn’t approve of neopronouns like ze or xe. Also, one of the new requirements in AP style is that when describing a person who identifies as neither male nor female, a writer should try to use their name in place of pronouns, or the sentence should be reworded if possible. If using a pronoun is unavoidable, the writer should use singular they and explain that the person prefers to be called gender-neutral pronouns. While I understand that the general population isn’t familiar with using they/them pronouns for a single person and that explanations are often necessary, I do find some of these rules disappointing.
      • However, the fact remains that the AP stylebook is catching up and recognizing not only the ever-evolving nature of the English language but the existence of non-binary people. That’s pretty cool!
  • It’s less clunky.
    • Which of these uses the most efficient language?
      • Ex. Every doctor should bring his or her stethoscope to the conference.
      • Ex. Every doctor should bring his/her stethoscope to the conference.
      • Ex. Every doctor should bring their stethoscope to the conference.
    • I like using the fewest words possible to communicate a message. Singular they tends to be more concise and less clunky than saying “he or she.” That’s probably why we tend to use singular they in spoken language rather than saying, “If someone wants a doctor to bring his or her stethoscope, he or she will have to ask him or her to do so.”
  • It doesn’t remind me of the patriarchy.
    • “He or she” puts the masculine first. Linguistically, it reminds me of how “or she” had to be tacked on after “he” because people used to just write “he” and that was it. The “or she” is progress, but it still puts women and the feminine second. How many times have you seen someone write “she or he” or “her or his”? Sometimes we get “s/he,” but that’s rare, and I’ve seen someone describe it as “unpronounceable.” (I always just read it as “she or he,” but whatever.)
    • If we go gender neutral, I don’t have to think about that history at all. I can pretend the patriarchy doesn’t exist for one goddamn minute. I am so sick of the patriarchy.
    • Conciseness comes to mind again here. I’m not quite sure if that’s the word I’m looking for. But I like removing references to gender where the reader doesn’t need to be thinking about gender at all. I like being neutral when gender isn’t relevant. Sometimes people seem to be preoccupied with gender rather than focusing on the most important issues. If I remove gendered pronouns in my writing, people are forced to focus on the issues I’m describing rather than on their preconceived notions of someone based on gender.
  • Last but certainly not least, it affirms trans and gender non-conforming people.
    • Obviously, people who identify as neither male nor female* often want to use gender-neutral pronouns for themselves. Singular they is a popular choice.
    • Even binary trans people benefit from using neutral language. For example, as a trans guy, I often need to utilize reproductive health services that are typically addressed to “women” or “female” patients. I would love to see more neutral language like, “A hysterectomy patient should keep the following things in mind for their recovery” instead of, “A hysterectomy patient should keep the following things in mind for her recovery.” I don’t like being misgendered, whether it’s in person or by a medical text. I shouldn’t start feeling dysphoric because I had to look up information to help me deal with, say, a yeast infection and could only find language addressed towards cis women.

So, singular they is awesome. Go tell your friends!

 

* Notice how the masculine came first there again? No one ever says “female or male.”

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