What's the Evidence? Using "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun
Earnsy Liu, TechCommNZ member and GDID student, looks for evidence (not just opinions) to help you manage the daily conundrums we face in our profession. If you have a question for Earnsy to tackle, please email Rhiannon, our Comms Coordinator.
Do you use they as a singular pronoun, for example, ‘Tell the reader what they need to do’? Some of us do so to be gender neutral; gender neutrality means not stereotyping either sex or unintentionally appearing to refer to only one sex. That’s important so we don’t insult, offend, irritate, confuse, or mislead our audience, as that would interfere with how they receive our message (Hollis Weber, 2012).
This article looks at the use of singular they. There has been surprisingly little research on it in the last decade, but we’ll look at its background, popularity, and what style guides recommend.
Singular they as a gender-neutral pronoun is not new: it was used by Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Jane Austen, and others. But ‘in more recent centuries … some grammarians began to insist that [they] be singular’ (R.L.G., 2014).
Opponents argue it is grammatically wrong to pair a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent (the word the pronoun refers to). They also feel the distinction between the singular and plural they is ambiguous. But linguistics lecturer Laura Paterson (2011), a strong supporter of the singular they, notes some authors have argued it is less confusing than the generic he, and why should they be problematic when the second-person you isn’t? She cites a study by Foertsch and Gernsbacher that discovered no problem for the majority of readers in processing sentences containing singular or plural pronouns with a singular antecedent. Plus, newspapers use singular they, which they wouldn’t if it were ambiguous.
They is increasingly accepted in informal spoken and written language (Strahan, 2008; Cutts, 2009; Paulwels & Winter, 2006), as demonstrated by examinations of two databases. One study reviewed gender terms recorded in the Collins Bank of English, a collection of 4.4 billion written and spoken words from around the world. That showed the generic he pronoun and generic alternatives such as he/she dropped between 1990 and 2009, while singular they increased (Moo, 2010).
Masculine (he, his, himself, etc.)
Alternative forms (s/he, him or her, his/her, etc.)
Plural/gender-neutral (they, them, one, themselves, etc.)
Another study analysed 2007/08 newspaper articles (from The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, and The Guardian) and 1961 texts (Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus, a million-word collection of British English texts). It, too, found the use of generic they had increased significantly while generic he had dropped (Paterson, 2011).
Strahan (2008) and Paulwels and Winter (2006) observed Australians were comfortable using singular they. Strahan examined first-year essays on language acquisition. They was used with general nouns such as ‘a child’ or ‘the child’, but also when the subject was known, as a ‘“gender not relevant to discussion” pronoun’ (p.27).
Paulwels and Winter’s survey found teachers were comfortable using singular they both in and out of the classroom, preferring it to he/she. Those under 30 years old did so because it was easy and what they were used to, often without realising there was a grammatical argument against it. Older teachers knew of the argument but still used singular they because ‘everyone uses it’ (p.132). What’s interesting is their motivation for using it: women saw themselves as agents for change, while men felt it was easy, or wanted to avoid the pronoun debate, comply with policies, or support women.
Paulwels and Winter attribute the popularity of singular they to feminist language reform and possibly a ‘more relaxed attitude towards grammatical correctness combined with a diminished knowledge of rules of grammar’ (p.129).
Even though the singular they is increasingly common, many style guides still caution against it. The information below is from the Wikipedia page ‘Singular they’ (2015), unless otherwise stated.
Yes, and yes, but…
- Australian Guide to Legal Citation (Strahan, 2008)
- Cambridge Guide to English Usage : Yes.
- Chicago Manual of Style : Yes but not in formal writing.
- Federation Press Style Guide for Use in Preparation of Book Manuscripts: Yes.
- Garner's Modern American Usage : Yes, but use cautiously, avoiding where possible because it is still not accepted. More accepted in British English.
- New Hart's Rules : Yes, but use cautiously.
- Oxford Guide to Plain English: Yes, but ‘If you can sensibly avoid it, do.’ (Cutts, 2009, p. 117).
- Economist Style Guide: No, it is ‘scrambled syntax’.
- Plain Words : Safer not to.
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association : Use he or she, recast sentence with a plural subject to allow correct use of they, or rewrite to avoid issues with gender or number.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL): No.
- Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace : No.
- The Times Style and Usage Guide : Use plural construction, e.g. not ‘If someone loves animals, they should protect them’, but ‘If people love animals, they should protect them’.
Hollis Weber (2012) probably sums up the style guides’ cautiousness when she says, ‘Do not use “they” as a singular pronoun unless you are confident that your audience won’t mind. This usage is gaining in popularity and acceptance, but a lot of people dislike it or stumble over it.". However her final assertion is not supported by the 1997 research of Foertsch and Gernsbacher.
Judging from usage trends, singular they is likely to become more accepted. Until then, you might choose to use it cautiously unless you are willing to defend your position. If you'd like tips on defending your position on singular they, see Emma Harding's February article on the TechCommNZ blog (where you can also comment on this topic).
One more thing: if your work is likely to be translated, you may want to go easy on your singular theys. According to translator Patrick King, translators prefer to ‘change the wording altogether or use the plural’ when they comes up. Also, they could confuse translators whose native language is not English (as cited by Hagen Issell in personal communication, January 30 and February 2, 2015).
If you’d like useful tips on writing gender neutrally, see Hollis Weber’s dos and don’ts in Gender–neutral Technical Writing.
My sincere thanks to Cindy Staudt and Emma Harding for their invaluable input.
Cutts, M. (2009). Oxford guide to plain English (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hollis Weber, J. (2012, January 3). Gender-neutral technical writing. TechWhirl. Retrieved from http://techwhirl.com/gender-neutral-technical-writing/
Moo, D. (2010, September). Collins report on gender language in English. Biblica . Retrieved from http://www.biblica.com/en-us/the-niv-bible/translation-process/collins-report-on-gender-language-in-english/
Paterson, L. L. (2011). Epicene pronouns in UK national newspapers: A diachronic study. ICAME Journal, 35, 171–184. Retrieved from http://clu.uni.no/icame/ij35/Laura_Louise_Paterson.pdf
Paulwels, A. & Winter, J. (2006). Gender inclusivity or ‘Grammar rules OK’? Linguistic prescriptivism vs linguistic discrimination in the classroom. Language and Education, 20(2), 128–140. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Strahan, T. E. (2008). ‘They’ in Australian English: Non-gender-specific or specifically non-gendered? Australian Journal of Linguistics, 28(1), 17–29. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.