ACES 2012 | New Orleans

Making the case for singular ‘they’

Sandra Schaefer shows off a chart related to use of the words "he" and "they."

Sandra Schaefer of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, says there are millions of nouns, but there are only eight little pronouns to represent all of them.

Schaefer has made it a point to study those eight words as part of her research on contemporary usage of gender-neutral pronouns. She has a mission: to convince you that one of those eight words — they — should not only be the common singular epicene pronoun in English, and that history supports that usage.

What better group of people to convince than a room filled with copy editors and other “wordies” during a breakout session Thursday, April 12, at the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference?

And while the meeting was in fun-filled New Orleans, there were plenty of people who considered listening to Schaefer’s research fun as well.

So, a little history, straight from Schaefer:

Until the 11th century, there was no pronoun “she.” She then replaced “heo,” a word sort-of female in gender, but not totally.

The word “they” was the standard singular pronoun until prescriptivism began gaining ground in the 17th century. Schaefer can point to a lot of literary examples of its use, by authors you may know. Like Shakespeare.

Prescriptivism lead to the rise of “he” as the widely accepted third-person singular pronoun. When you consider that most of the writers, teachers and people in charge at that time were men, the usage seems logical.

Over the past 200 years, English speakers (particularly American English speakers) have searched for a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. But none of the ideas took hold. (Ever used the word “thon”?)

Yet, despite prescriptivism, people still use “they” as a third-person singular pronoun. The common thought is that the usage is more spoken than written, but Schaefer says that’s not really true. Research of usage in newspaper articles shows a high rate of usage for “they” as a third-person singular pronoun.

“We’ve changed the way we use pronouns,” Schafer says, “but it probably hasn’t been a conscious choice.”

Schaefer notes that grammar rules came from Latin, but English is a Germanic, not Latin, language.

For 1,500 years, she says, we’ve been trying to make English cooler by making it more like Latin.

In the 1700s came the idea that male was the norm and “he” stood for any gender. The feminist movement in the 1960s made that unpopular (although the AP Stylebook still calls for use of “he” as gender-neutral).

At the same time, writers and editors hate “he or she” and any of its shortened forms. Schaefer says we’ll use it for sex-stereotyped antecedents (such as “doctor”) because we don’t want to offend anyone.

But we’re more likely to try to write around the issues. And women are more apt to do that than men, one study suggests.

Why is that? Who knows? Schaefer says part of it is that Americans are conservative about our language and don’t want to break the rules. (The British use third-person singular “they” more often because they aren’t as conservative about the language, she says.)

And we also do it the way we do it — or write around the problem — because stylebooks don’t want to discuss the singular they. Editors follow the style guides and, often, that’s that. One audience member suggested that the shortage of copy editors in some quarters might bring back the singular “they” usage — isn’t it quicker to not change it?

Schaefer notes that our language is constantly evolving and that we’re going to have to deal with that. The style manuals, she says need to reflect the common usage, which is evolving to the use of “they” as both plural and singular.

1 comment on Making the case for singular ‘they’

  1. Crowbar
    April 15, 2012 at 12:19 pm (2792 days ago)

    What happened to s/he?