Me, grading a paper in 1996:
A 12th-grader writes, “If someone wants their job, they should write clear memos.”
My notes in the margin read, “Your pronouns need to agree. Someone is singular. Their and they are plural. Change to “If someone wants his/her job, she/he should write clear memos.’”
I always pushed my students to move away from the “singular they.” I wanted them to learn about the grammatical rule for agreement in number. I also used that lesson to teach them about the ways our grammatical structures and rules discriminated against women. I fought that good fight for over a decade.
Me, grading a paper in 2016:
A first-year college composition student writes, “If someone wants their job, they should write clear emails.”
I take a sip of my coffee and move on.
Twenty years into my teaching career, I get the opportunity again to use pronouns to teach about gender discrimination in ways I never imagined possible at the start of my career, thanks to the singular they.
The singular they is quickly gaining more and more attention in the media and writing and teaching circles for its inclusive nature. Once considered acceptable and used by authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Jane Austen, the singular they fell out of favor in style guides in the early 20th century.
For example, in their The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White command writers to stop misusing they: “Do not use they when the antecedent is a distributive expression such as each, each one, everybody, every one, many a man. Use the singular pronoun.” The authors also caution writers against using they with the antecedents anybody, somebody and someone. (In the first 1918 edition of Elements, Strunk ruled that he was the default unless the antecedent was feminine.)
Later, the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1970s asked writers to consider the deferral to masculine pronouns to represent all people. Vis, cos, zir and zim came into being, but their use was limited. Mathematician Michael Spivak even created his own set of gender-neutral pronouns in 1983. None of these options gained traction in popular writing.
Now, the singular they is addressing another problem with English grammar: There is no room for gender identities other than the he/she binary of singular pronouns. What does this shift mean for us teachers of writing? Grammarians are drawing lines in the sand over this return to they as a singular pronoun, and many of my colleagues and friends dislike it. I can’t help but join them and bristle a little at the idea that a rule we worked so hard to teach is no longer valid.
But the tide is changing, and we can either be on the right or wrong side of stylistic history. Language matters. It reflects our culture and our constructions of identity. So if we don’t make room in our language, it seems we can’t make room in our society for anyone who does not fall on either side of the slash between he and she. As we question gender binaries, we must question our language—and the way we teach it.
Print sources and language associations are setting the precedent by adopting the use of the singular they in their publications. The Washington Post uses it. The American Dialect Society (ADS) named it 2015’s Word of the Year. Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’ New Words Committee, explained, “In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation. … While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.” Because this word is already in the language—even though many people consider its use to be incorrect—it may have more of a chance of extending gender fluidity into our language in ways that other words have fallen short.
I have resolved to teach my students the singular they as an opportunity to explain gender identity and fluidity, and as a way to open to the door to other gender-neutral terms. I see no other way to ensure gender equality in language. The he/she binary’s exclusionary nature harms the work feminist, transgender, genderqueer and intersex activists (among others) and their allies are doing outside of the classroom. In the classroom, we can make spaces for all genders one sentence at a time, thanks to the resurgence of the singular they.
Clemens is the assistant professor of non-Western literatures at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.