Singular They

by Dave

Problem(s)

I say, if a person is living out on their own, they should get their own ice cream for themself.

Solution(s)

I say, if a person is living out on their own, they should get their own ice cream for themselves.

I say, if a person is living out on his or her own, he or she should get his or her own ice cream for him or herself.

I say, if a person is living out on his or her own, he or she should get his or her own ice cream for him- or herself.

I say, if a person is living out on her or his own, she or he should get her or his own ice cream for her or himself.

I say, if a person is living out on his/her own, s/he should get his/her own ice cream for him/herself.

I say, if one is living out on one’s own, one should get one’s own ice cream for oneself.

I say, if a person is living out on their own, they should get their own ice cream for themself.

Explanation

Okay, here’s the deal. English, like every other language on the planet, is broken. There are some loonies out there that think that English is the bee’s knees, but the very expression “the bee’s knees” should clue you in to the truth. English is not an entity that exists on its own, like a rock or a tree. If every speaker of English dies, English dies. If tomorrow every English speaker wakes up and starts calling sparrows billytails, then guess what? Sparrows are billytails: end of story. The English language is not a system! We are the system. If we change the system, the system changes. Further, not everyone is on the same page. In fact, not everyone is even in the same book (as this sentence might indicate to some readers). As a result, the “language” is different for every speaker, and constantly changing all the time.

Enter the pronouns of English. Right from the beginning, someone should have figured out that the lousy English pronoun system is broken and deficient. I mean, look at this table!

  Singular Plural
First Person I we
Second Person you
Third Person he they
she
it

Notice anything…uh…broken about that table? I mean, look at that thing! It’s hideous! What a pathetic table! How do you know if I’m addressing one or more of you? Don’t ask me: I speak English!

Now here’s the problem. Notice in the “Third Person Singular” cell, we have three pronouns. “He” is classified as masculine and animate (that is, it’s for people). “She” is classified as feminine and animate. “It” is classified as inanimate (try referring to a baby as “it” and see how the parents react). Jump over to the plural side, and you have one pronoun: “they.” Is it animate? Sure, why not? Inanimate? You bet. Gendered? Even better: it’s transgender; it does it all! It’s a take-it-as-it-comes pronoun.

Notice that nowhere in that table do you see “one”. That’s because no one should use it, because it sounds unbelievably stupid. As does “he or she” or “s/he”, or “hym”, or anything like that. So, what do you do when you need to refer to some single thing that you know is animate but whose gender could potentially be masculine or feminine? Before the Civil Rights movement, we said “he”. That makes everyone uncomfortable now, though (as it should, in my proud, audacious opinion), so we’re left with some options. You can mess around with “one” and “he or she” if you want, but they’re a bit absurd. So what are the options? We have two pronouns left: “it” and “they.” Here’s how they stack up:

  It They
Third Person?
Animate?
Singular?

Okay, decision time: what’s more important: animacy or plurality? English speakers overwhelming choose “animacy”. And why not? Other languages fudge on the whole plural thing (cf. “vous” en français). Animacy is a tough one to fudge on, though. As humans, we enjoy our whole thought and reflection thing, and we like to have it reflected in our language.

So really, the proper thing to do is to use “they”. It’s been used in singular situations since the 1500s (check the Oxford English Dictionary if you doubt me), so why shouldn’t we use it now? Well, the problem is there are stuffshirts out there that don’t know a thing about language and don’t accept “they” in the singular on the grounds that it’s “not proper”. If you want to impress those stuffshirts, you’ll have to use “one” or “he or she”. You will also have to avoid the neologism “themself”. That word couldn’t exist if there weren’t a use for it. The fact that it does shows how pervasive the singular usage of “they” is. March on, I say! Use it and be proud! Just be aware that many will judge you based on how you write. If you can’t handle the criticism leveled against singular “they” users, then perhaps you should stay on the safer side of the tracks and use “one” and/or “s/he”. Me, I’m going to go have fun with “they” on the wrong side of the tracks. Why? Because singular “they” is metal. Enough said.