Brigid Hughes and the covers of the past few issues of 'A Public Space'

Is the Singular “They” Grammatically Correct?

Language is always evolving. The way we speak in 2018 will not at all be the way we speak in 2068, much in the same way that we don’t currently speak the way people did in 1318. The evolution of language is a fabulous thing; it reflects our capacity to adapt and change when presented with new information, and allows for the progress of the human species. But change is painfully slow, and the progress of language is especially hindered because of the irritating culture of linguistic gatekeeping. There are people in the world who take immense pride in their supposed mastery of the English language, to the point of being downright snobbish toward people who either have not had the privilege of an English language education or simply reject the idea that it is necessary to take grammar so seriously.


One of the current linguistic debates is over the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. In recent years, people have become much more attentive to the pronouns used to refer to others. Slowly, effort is being made to ask first before calling someone “she” or “he,” and while the question may seem small or unnecessary, it’s really not. Simply asking for someone’s pronouns indicates respect for the person being spoken to, acknowledgement of their right to determine their own identity, and reinforces that appearance cannot be and has never been the sole indicator of one’s gender, and truthfully, it never has been, but now people are starting to notice.


spectrum of gender

Image via Gender Free World


But even those who have gotten far enough to recognize the necessity of asking for pronouns may not have expanded their horizons far enough to include genders outside of the binary male-female system. In other words, even if you have recognized that the gender binary is not what you’ve been told it is, you may not know what exists outside of that binary.


Not everyone in this world is either a man or a woman, and even if one is a man or a woman, one’s relation to or expression of that identity may not be exclusive to traditional gender-based limitations. 


These people may accept she or he pronouns, but many exclusively accept “they.” Which is fine. There is absolutely no personal sacrifice required to refer to a person by the pronoun by which they have told you they will be referred to. But of course, some people just gotta be difficult.


"Are you a boy or a girl?" "No"

Image via Beyond the Binary


There is a alarming number of people in the world who are so hung up on the “rules” that they are completely dismissing the importance of using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. There is an even more alarming number of people who are fully cognizant of the importance of gender-neutral pronouns and use their conception of rigid grammar to disrespect and insult non-binary people.


To be clear, even if the singular they was incorrect, it would not matter. Language is capable of evolving, and if we use “they” as a singular pronoun, it is a singular pronoun. Every single word we speak today was once new and never-before-used. Many of our words mean something entirely different today than they did when they entered the lexicon. Words are invented and once invented, evolve further to fill the gaps in our language. We have words because we need them, and when a new linguistic gap presents itself, we improvise.


For example, have you ever wondered why English doesn’t have a plural second-person pronoun to compare to “you”? In the absence of such a pronoun, we resort to using “y’all,” “youse,” “yinz,” and the technically more correct, but clunky, “you all.” The answer is actually hiding in plain sight.


Back in the olden times (very olden, we’re talking like Shakespeare’s era), “you” was the plural pronoun. If you were speaking to one person, you’d address them as “thou.” That is, you would, unless you were speaking to royalty. It is not unusual to perceive and address a monarch as being plural; recall Queen Victoria’s famous line, “We are not amused.”


“Thou” eventually fell out of use in the 17th century due to being perceived as impolite. Therefore, if you have any qualms about “they” as a singular pronoun, then it would behoove you to start thou-ing people, lest you be taken for a hypocrite.


Shakespeare Folio

Image via Smithsonian Magazine


Aside from the historical evolution of language, the singular they is also defended by its formidable ally, Merriam-Webster.



Who would’ve thought Merriam-Webster was such a fierce LGBTQ advocate? But indeed they are, and listen to me: Merriam-Webster will fight you.




Image via Daily Hampshire Gazette


Featured Image Via Nonbinary Wiki and Dr. Jenny Arm