To boldly use “they” instead of “he” with a singular antecedent

Beware of style guides. Ok – follow them slavishly of course, if you have to. But if you’re in the glorious position of deciding afresh what grammatical course you will take in your essay, or your organisation, or your life, don’t just believe everything you read in a style guide.

Who am I to say this? A former student of linguistics, that’s all. Of all the lessons I learnt at university in the ’80s, one that drove me craziest is that many of our dafter grammatical rules are based on rather casually-written grammar books from the eighteenth century. Here’s an example, to whet your appetite. If you already know why split infinitives are a non-issue, skip ahead.

In Latin, the infinitive of a verb is one word. In English, it’s two words:

Latin: videre
English: to see

Bishop Lowth is famous in linguistic circles for deciding that, since Latin was practically perfect, if its infinitive couldn’t be split, neither could English infinitives. It’s difficult to credit, but this contributed to all sorts of strange somersaults in English for more than two centuries afterwards. People were, in all seriousness, told to write “boldly to go where no-one has before”, simply in order to avoid splitting the infinitive. It doesn’t sound like English to me!

Today I looked in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), no less, and this is what it has to say, in a footnote, about the split infinitive:

“The thirteenth edition of this manual included split infinitives among the examples of “errors and infelicities” but tempered the inclusion by adding, in parentheses, that they are “debatable ‘error’”. The item has been dropped from the fourteenth edition because the Press now regards the intelligent and discriminating use of the construction as a legitimate form of expression and nothing writers or editors need feel uneasy about.”

Hmm. Good for the CMS. However, the CMS editor is still surprisingly squeamish about the use of “they” and its variants in sentences such as:

Each teacher must design their own study plan.

Unless you’re writing informally, the CMS would have you rewrite the sentence to avoid having a plural pronoun “their” refer to a singular antecedent “each teacher”. Of course there are lots of ways you can practise avoidance of this so-called gaffe. Each teacher must design his own study plan. Don’t. Even. Go. There. Each teacher must design his/her own study plan. Yuck. All teachers must design their own study plan. Yes, you could, but…

…Why are we so confident that “they” is purely plural? We have no reason to believe it, if it weren’t for the eighteenth century prescriptivists – the Bishop Lowths of this world – who decided that English could not achieve perfection unless it conveniently expunged the usage – that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and many other illustrious writers were happy to use – of “they” with singular antecedents.

In her book British Pronoun Use, Prescription, and Processing: Linguistic and Social Influences Affecting ‘They’ and ‘He’, Dr Laura Paterson of Sheffield Hallam University gives a compelling argument that the reason people use “they” and its variants in spoken language, and increasingly in written language, is that it is entirely grammatical; that “they”, like “you”, can be both singular and plural; and that gender-neutral language is easily within our grasp if we just cast aside the spurious ideas of the eighteenth century grammarians. It’s time to stop this nonsense that the style guides are perpetuating. You don’t need to rewrite the sentence. Just rewrite the style guide.

12 thoughts on “To boldly use “they” instead of “he” with a singular antecedent

  1. Gene Roddenberry: Splitting infinitives with not a care in the world.

    Speaking of, I’m curious about German grammar and their reflexive verb system. The infinitive being attaching the prefix “an” to a verb to make a single word, and when it’s used in a sentence the “an” and the verb get broken apart and wrapped around the pronoun*. How often does that need to be put in a style guide? Can you be non-prefixed in German if you’re talking about an inanimate object and change the verb?

    *Take anfangen as an example. “Ich fange mit der Arbeit an” Means “I will start the task/work”, but can you have “der Computer fange mit…” or would you use a different verb?

    • I wonder whether Gene Roddenberry had a view on “they” as a singular pronoun?

      Ich fange mit der Arbeit an isn’t a phrase I use often. What’s the Deutsch for I will put off the work?

      Have you seen Her?

      So many questions!

      • “Ich werde über die Arbeit verschleppen”

        Also I love “verschleppen” as a synonym for procrastinate.

        I’ve only really heard of “they” as a singular pronoun (rather than collective pronoun) when talking about non-gender-binary individuals, or when the gender of the person who is the subject on conversation is unknown, so this is pretty cool.

        No, but I really want to see Her, it sounds fascinating and my officemate thinks it’s awesome :)

  2. I liked whatever resource it was that suggested we view ‘they’ as being similar to ‘you’, which can be both singular and plural.

    I tend to be a re-writer myself, to avoid infelicitous constructions, or I go with ‘he or she’/’his or her’ (though the feminist in me will often invert the norm to ‘she or he’/’her or his’).

    One thing I won’t stand for is any of this ‘s/he’ nonsense though…

  3. Andy STeadman says:

    Bravo, Emma!

    I definitely, and perhaps, defiantly, subscribe to “they”. From a plain English and usability point of view, the “he/she” constructs are just too much like hard work for the reader. Why put them through it?

    As for style guides…well…they’re just “guides”.

  4. Emma, thanks for a provocative article. I draft laws for a living in the Channel Islands and I am told in UK legislation, ‘he’ or ‘Jane’ can become ‘they’. I myself find it too to stomach, grammatically transforming one person into many, so I had a mild argument with a collegue the other day. NZ drafters have been taught since the 90s that a singular antecedent can never become a ‘they’. English drafters are way behind and only started adopting Plain language in the last 10 years, whilst NZ had it since the 80s. i wonder if this is a case of, if you wait long enough, the fashions and trends will change back to whatever it was before anyway (e.g. Shakespearean English, and you never need to change your style!)

    • Hi Roy,

      Thanks for commenting – it’s such fun when people do! Has my article changed the way you see this issue? I can’t quite tell from your comments.

      Regards, Em
      PS My granny was born on Guernsey in 1899…

  5. This might also be of interest to you on the he/she/they topic. Sweden’s approach to non-gender-specific methods of address:

    • Yes, that’s an interesting article, all right. I’m inclined to agree with Geoffrey Pullum – it will be hard to introduce this structure-class word successfully. We managed it with Ms, but that’s an honorific, not a pronoun. I absolutely love his point that English hoovered up “they” after the Scandinavian invasion, while the Swedish are having to invent something. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I hope that I am not a late participant. I think it is OK to use the pluralized form in place of the singularized (or if I may say, the gender-ized form) antecedent. I have the following observations on the matter:

    First: A lot of languages, such as Hindi, have rules to use pronouns. For example, the pronoun “You” in Hindi, which is the national language of India, is either “Tum”, “Tu”, or “Aap.” The “Tum” (semi-formal) or “Tu” (non-formal) form is used when the readers are younger than the speaker; and the “Aap” (formal) form is used when the readers are either elder than the speaker or it is important to pay respect to them. Basically, the different forms of “You” (as “Tum”, “Tu”, or “Aap”) are used case basis. Such variations are not possible in the English language. That’s why I’d prefer the pluralized form.

    Second: This starts where the first point concludes: Challenges in translation. The singularized form might be more acceptable, but it definitely doesn’t serve the purpose in cases when it is difficult to guess the age, the level of education (or social status), or the other details of the readers. All these points contribute to the degree of comprehension when our localized, translated content reaches the readers. The use of the pluralized form helps eliminate such issues as well.

Leave a Reply