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A Study in Singular “They”


In elementary school, we are taught how to use pronouns: she, he, we, it, and they. These are pronouns we attach depending on what we’re replacing. In recent years, however, society has become more open to the fluidity of genders and has started blurring the lines between gender binaries.

Last year, the American Dialect Society made history (and opened the floodgates of controversy) by voting singular “they” as the Word of the Year. This is an annual award given to the most significant word or term in the past year.

The Post Style guide adapted the use of singular “they” in 2015 as it has become a common habit in American slang. An example of its use is the following: Everyone wants their cat to be the best.

The more “grammatically-correct” way to say the sentence is, Everyone wants his or her cat to be the best.

Strict grammarians think that this ratification is unacceptable because of the history of the English language. Much like German, Spanish, and French, Old English assigned arbitrary genders to all nouns, articles, and demonstratives, and adjectives used forms depending on the assigned genders. However, in the 1300s, singular “they” was introduced and used without being considered bad grammar. In the 1600s, Latin grammar rules were applied to English, and by the nineteenth century, singular “they” was disputed as it did not agree with the “logic” of Latin grammar. This was when formal style guides started to consider singular “they” as grammatically incorrect.

However, using either he/she is nonexclusive to those who prefer not to be referred to as any one of those pronouns. The use of singular “they” is one step closer to allowing the English language to adapt to emerging ideas about gender identity. Its ratification in many style guides is further proof that society is in fact moving forward.

Nevertheless, singular “they” is becoming more and more accepted as a grammatical norm. Grammarians may continue to insist its lack of logic, but the English language, being as dynamic as it is, will always be in favor of change.




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