Using “they” as a singular pronoun

Earlier this year, the AP Stylebook announced (see the article below) that they (see what I did there?) were allowing the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

What little discussion of the subject I have encountered among friends and other academics, in person and on social media, indicates that Colleen Newvine, product manager for the Stylebook, was accurate in stating that “Some people will be furious; others won’t think we’ve gone far enough.”

Personally, in my classes, I allow students to use “they” as a singular pronoun, for the same reasons as the AP Stylebook (“recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she”). I have long thought that the absence of a non-gendered singular pronoun in English besides “it” is a significant weakness in the language, and “they” is enough of a workaround for me—and, experience indicates, for my students.

I have a few requirements for students who use “they” in this manner. Clarity (something that AP too emphasizes in their explanation of how “they” can/should be used) is of high importance to me, as is consistency, so I require students to provide both when using “they” as singular. As part of the above, students are expected to make it clear via the context that “they” refers to an individual. Of course, I ask students to seek for clarity and consistency whenever they use language, so I have to do nothing new in this regard.

I have many reasons for being comfortable with this shift. Since I engage regularly (and ask students to do so) with the issue of how language asserts and creates/supports power, often serving to disenfranchise those who fall outside the supposed bounds of social acceptability, I want the English language to be more inclusive and egalitarian. As a multilingual speaker of languages (Bengali and Hindi) which actually include non-gendered singular pronouns, I’ve long considered, as I noted previously, its absence in English a flaw. And as someone who studies (and enjoys) the way language changes and morphs over time, accepting such change is hardly a difficulty. When I teach Shakespeare, I explain to students that, contrary to their expectations, “you” is the formal term and “thou” the informal term in the plays, since that was the customary usage of the time. As my students and I discussed this week in class, any language is an almost completely arbitrary sign system. If one is consistent enough with it to be clear, that’s good enough for me. Experience too shows that allowing the use of “they” as singular does not hurt clarity of communication in my classrooms at all.

What about you?

1 thought on “Using “they” as a singular pronoun

  1. I’m teaching two LGBTQ courses this semester, and I have multiple students who refer to themselves with the pronouns they/them/theirs. For me, “allowing” this terminology as a teacher is a matter of respecting someone’s gender identity. Of someone wants nothing to do with the gender binary, who are we to say that’s not possible via language?

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