Yes, ‘They’ Can be Used as a Singular Pronoun

As a person that uses ‘they/them’ as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, I have heard my share of people complain about my pronouns. Often in one breath they say that my pronouns are “grammatically incorrect” and then in the next not notice using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. Those people often consider themselves to be language purists without, however, realizing that singular ‘they’ has been in use for many years.

For example, Shakespeare often used singular they as parts of antecedents. In Shakepeare’s A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3, an example of ‘they’ used in a singular context is used:

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

Geoffey K. Pullman, who wrote a short piece that provided both the above example and a few other from throughout history, stated in it that,“ This use of they isn’t ungrammatical, it isn’t a mistake, it’s a feature of ordinary English syntax that for some reason attracts the ire of particularly puristic pusillanimous pontificators, and we don’t buy what they’re selling.”

In January of 2016, the American Dialect Society named singular ‘they’ as the Word of the Year at their annual meeting in Washington D.C. by a large margin. Ben Zimmer, the linguist who presided over the voting, stated, “ We know about singular they already — we use it everyday without thinking about it, so this is bringing it to the fore in a more conscious way, and also playing into emerging ideas about gender identity.”

Riley J. Dennis demonstrates in a video she made on using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun and how people use it. In the video, Dennis discusses both how it has been part of the English language for many years. She also brings up the point that many people use singular they to express a gender identity outside of the gender binary. When discussing the importance of the use of ‘they’ in that context she says, “ I know this can be hard to adjust to and can sound clunky. I still mess it up all the time myself with my non-binary friends. But we have to try. Refusing to respect someone’s gender identity by continually misgendering them honestly just perpetuates the hatred against gender non-binary people and delegitimizes their existence.”

I have faced this stigma of using singular they as my pronoun of choice. A professor once gave me an unwarranted lecture on how much he hated that people use 'they' as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. People have talked about how much my pronouns will strain their sensible upstanding of the English language and then later use singular they and not even notice. After a while, it can be difficult not to harbor some resentment towards these people.

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