Singular ‘they’: teaching a changing language

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Nigel Caplan, Associate Professor at University of Delaware, shows how useful they/them can be for non-plural as well as plural reference. English is perhaps at a transition point with its pronouns, so you will want to take in everything he has to say.

Introductory linguistics courses often teach that pronouns are a closed group: languages tend not to add new pronouns, unlike open categories such as nouns and verbs, where there is frequent innovation. However, pronouns can and do still change. For example, English used to have a second-person singular pronoun, thou, which contrasted with the plural pronoun you much like tu/vous in French, tu/usted in Spanish, and du/Sie in German, which it historically derived from. Thou carried the meaning of familiarity: in Hamlet, Gertrude greets her son after her wedding celebrations, “thou hast thy father much offended,” to which Hamlet coldly replies, “No, madam, you have my father much offended.” In modern standard English, of course, the formerly plural pronoun you covers both singular and plural, familiar and polite.

They as a singular-pronoun

Something comparable is happening today with the third-person plural pronoun they. Like you, but for different reasons, they has become a singular pronoun with two different uses that fill two gaps in the English language.

First use of singular they

First, they is used when the gender of the referent (the noun to which the pronoun refers) is unknown or unimportant. This use avoids clumsy workarounds such as he/she and his or her. For example:

  • Everyone needs to bring their laptop to class tomorrow.
  • I didn’t see the person who stole my wallet. They reached into backpack and ran away.
  • The teacher should expect students to contact them with questions after class.

While grammar prescriptivists may object to the use of a plural pronoun with a singular meaning, this is a widely accepted usage that dates back centuries and has finally been recognized by most style guides. Singular they is colloquial, convenient, and concise, and it is an option that English learners can and should be taught.

Second use of singular they

The second use of singular they is more contemporary. Some people do not identify with the pronouns he or she. Many nonbinary people use the pronouns they/them/their. It is a sign of respectful and inclusive language to use people’s identified pronouns. They can also be used for people whose gender and identified pronouns are unknown rather than assuming he/him/his or she/her/hers pronouns simply based on someone’s name or appearance. Note that plural verb forms are always used with they even when referring to one person, as they are with you (e.g., they are and you are and not *they is or *you is).

Making ESL/EFL more inclusive

Teaching English learners to understand the importance of using people’s identified pronouns is part of a broader project of making ESL/EFL more inclusive so that the language we teach is better aligned with the lived reality of the millions of users of English around the world. In some teaching situations, it may be better to wait until a context for singular they arises before pointing its use out to students. In other situations, it might be taught as part of basic instruction in pronouns. In either case, it is important for teaching materials not to assume that there are only two possible singular pronouns for people, he or she.

The downloadable handout demonstrates contexts in which singular they might be used, but it may need adapting for local contexts.

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