The English language is not as static as we would like to believe. Evolution of words, language shift, and changed definitions over the course of time all require an alteration in the interpretation and comprehension of the written form. Let’s discuss the singular use of “they”.
From an historical viewpoint, the pronoun “they” was first documented in the singular use as early as 1375 in the medieval romance “William and the Werewolf” (Baron, 2021). It was not until the 18th century that grammarians began to call out the use of the singular “they” as not appropriate (Baron, 2021). Nonetheless the negative affectations toward the use of the singular “they” began to fade away when it was adopted and published in the New English Dictionary in 1998 as acceptable once more.
The use of the singular “they” has many applications in both speaking and writing. The singular they is a quick and easy substitute when seeking to avoid gender-specific pronouns in a sentence.
Example: Someone left his or her laundry in the dryer. → Someone left their laundry in the dryer.
An important note: APA, Chicago Manuel of Style, OWL Perdue, and Grammarly all recommend avoiding the older terminology of “his/hers” or “he/she”, “his or her” in writing. It is recommended one lean toward the adoption of the singular they in these instances (Purdue University, 2021). The use of the singular they is supported in APA 7.0, Chicago Manual of Style, Grammarly, OWL Perdue, and Associated Press (Mora, 2021).
Aside from the accepted use in formal writing, the singular they may be used to identify persons in the classroom by way of personal pronouns. Students and faculty who express their personal pronouns should expect to have these observed and respected in the classroom.
From Werewolves to Wall Street, the journey of “they” is an amazing adventure!
MAED, BSCOMM, BAEng
University of Phoenix
References and More Reading --
Baron, D. (2021, March 23). A brief history of singular ‘they’. Retrieved from Oxford English Dictionary: https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/
Mora, C. (2021, March 23). What Is the Singular They, and Why Should I Use It? Retrieved from Grammarly Blog: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/use-the-singular-they/
Purdue University. (2021, March 23). Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They”. Retrieved from Purdue Online Writing Lab: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/grammar/pronouns/gendered_pronouns_and_singular_they.html