English pronouns are a mess and they always have been.
From the earliest recorded English texts, our pronouns have been remarkable compared to pronouns in other European languages.
However, this hasn’t stopped grammarians from trying to fit them awkwardly into a Latin-shaped box.
For the past two centuries, style guides have condemned certain “misuses” of pronouns in English writing.
The problem is, these “misuses” are only incorrect if we assume English works like Latin — spoiler: it doesn’t at all.
A common example of this mismatch is “you” (the second person pronoun).
In Latin, the singular is “tu” and the plural is “vos;” in English, both singular and plural are “you” unless you’re from a region that uses “y’all” for the plural, or a time-traveler who uses “thou” for the singular.
Strangely, modern grammar books don’t seem to take issue with singular “you” — by Latin-logic, we should all be “thee”ing and “thou”ing each other — but they have taken particular issue with singular “they.”
When avoiding a singular “they,” the English language does not allow for reference to any person without prior knowledge of their gender, making gender the most important trait of a person for conversation.
Therefore, it is imperative that the singular “they” become more widely adopted in order to institute a more inclusive dialogue.
Though English snobs have reasons for their crusade against a singular “they,” their reasons are flawed.
Beginning in 1795, grammarians began to attack singular “they” because, in Latin, third person pronouns (“ea,” “is,” “id”) have corresponding plural forms (“eae,” “ei,” “ea”), so English third person pronouns (“she,” “he,” “it”) need the same, and “they” must play this (and only this) role.
Of course, English doesn’t work like Latin. Even Old English (spoken from around 500 CE to 1100 CE) never quite had the same type of correspondences that Latin did.
Old English had two sets of third person pronouns: the first was “heo,” “he” and “hit,” which had a gender-nondescript plural “hie,” and the second also served as the words for “the” and “that/those” — “seo,” “se,” and “þæt” (“þ” is the “th” sound in “think”).
Interestingly, when “se” and “þæt” were not the subject or direct object of the action in a sentence, there was no distinction between the singular and plural form — “þæm” — and when heading other phrases, all of them could be replaced with a numberless and genderless “þe.”
When English lost a lot of its grammatical endings and pronunciation changes made the older plural “hie” sound too much like the pronoun “he,” English speakers borrowed the Old Norse plural “þei.”
However, the old usages of “þæm” and “þe” persisted and merged with the Norse pronoun “þei,” leading to similar (and eventually identical) pronouns being used in both singular and plural situations; examples can be found in Chaucer, Shakespeare and countless modern authors.
“They” is both singular and plural because it comes from both a plural Old Norse source and a number-and-gender-nondescript Old English source.
For this reason, the use of “they” is the best solution for situations where number is grammatically ambiguous (i.e. with words like “anyone” “everyone” “somebody,” etc.), as well as where someone’s gender is not known, irrelevant, or many cases, where the person being referred to is non-binary (i.e. someone whose gender is outside of the man-woman binary).
For this last case, when someone’s pronouns are “they/them/their(s),” using those pronouns is the grammatically correct way to refer to that person.
In the last few years, thanks to insight from linguistic research and from many non-binary people, grammarians and lexicographers are rethinking their prejudice against singular “they.”
On Jan. 8 this year, the American Dialect Society chose singular “they” as 2015’s Word of the Year, specifically pointing to its use as an identifier for a single person of non-binary gender.
They also voted it 2015’s Most Useful Word.
Additionally, many dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford Online Dictionaries, have shifted to recording singular “they” as a grammatically correct usage.
Former SPU english and grammar professor and current adjunct English faculty member Luke Reinsma has had a similar turnaround.
“While I used to regard SPU’s typical, generic emails – ‘if a student has yet to … they can …’ as grammatically incompetent, I’ve now had a grammatical conversion experience,” Reinsma admits.
“The use of singular ‘they’ [is] a fairly elegant, unobtrusive solution — used all the time in speech — that has the added benefit, of course, of accommodating transgender issues as well.”
Ryan Moniz is a senior studying linguistics, cultural studies and creative writing.