Pronouns are a peculiar linguistic phenomenon. They tend to change and shift over time. Pronouns have been messed up in English by some peculiar things.
Consider the full range of pronouns available in English.
- I am
- Thou art (intimate form)
- He is
- She is
- It is
- One might be
- They are (singular or plural)
- You are (singular or plural or formal)
- We are
The only gendered pronouns in the above list are he and she. I have omitted “y’all” and “youse” from the list, as although they’re excellent coinages, they’re not in general use.
There are also three “lost” pronouns, which illustrate linguistic shifts and pragmatic linguistics at work.
‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ were effectively lost to the English language when people’s attitudes to God changed. ‘Thou’ was originally the intimate or informal form of ‘you’ (like du in German and tu in French). Du is still used to address people informally and to address God as an intimate in German. Sadly, in English, where people started to view God as an authority figure, ‘thou’ came to seem formal instead of informal. Quakers and people from Yorkshire still use it correctly as the intimate form of you.
When ‘you’ became singular as well as plural, there was resistance to it.
‘It’ could have become a perfectly sensible gender-neutral singular pronoun, if only it hadn’t been used in a derogatory way to deprive people, animals, and things of personhood and agency. Perhaps when more people have embraced an animist worldview, ‘it’ will make a comeback as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
Once upon a time, ‘one’ was used as a gender-neutral generic pronoun to refer to a hypothetical person. Then Prince Charles messed that up by using it as a personal pronoun to refer to himself. The use of ‘one’ as a generic pronoun then fell out of use and people saw it as ‘posh’.
There are two uses of singular they: as a generic pronoun to refer to a hypothetical person; and as a personal pronoun for someone who is nonbinary or genderqueer.
Singular they has been in use since the 1300s, but apparently grammarians tried to discourage its use from the 18th century onwards.
It’s easy to conjugate verbs with singular ‘they’. It’s analogous to how you conjugate verbs with singular you as opposed to plural you, i.e. there’s no change from plural to singular.
- They walk (present tense)
- They were walking (imperfect tense)
- They have walked (perfect tense)
- They walked (simple past tense)
Perhaps the people who object to singular they should go back to using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ for singular you. Darned newfangled transfer of pronouns from plural to singular, eh? They should probably stop using all other words that were coined after 1299 too. No ‘television’ or ‘computer’. ‘Awful’ should replace ‘awesome’ in their vocabulary, and ‘artificial’ should mean “full of artifice” (as in King James I’s verdict on St Paul’s Cathedral, that it was “awful and artificial”). They must never use ‘nice’ to mean ‘pleasant’ and can only ever use it to mean ‘nitpicking’, as in the phrase “a nice distinction”.
In German, the pronoun sie or Sie gets a lot of use, as it means you (formal), they, and she. The German equivalent of ‘one’ is the pronoun man. French also uses vous as both a singular and a plural pronoun. Its version of ‘one’ is on, which is also sort of gender neutral (a rare example in French).
Some people are worried about the possibility that they might be asked to say “they is”. Apparently.
Apparently some people have never heard of descriptive grammar, as opposed to prescriptive grammar. Descriptive grammar is a branch of pragmatic linguistics; both describe language as people really use it, instead of trying to prescribe and define how they should use it. Pragmatic linguistics does not mean that words can mean whatever you want them to mean: it means that meanings shift and change over time, as a language community uses them and explores their connotations.
Some dialects of English probably use ‘they is’, so, whilst it is not what you would write in a formal setting, it may be part of the vernacular usage, but seems to be very rarely used. In the same way, one does not write the contraction “it’s” in a formal setting, but it’s fine in an email or a blogpost. The singular form ‘themself’ is disputed but can be easily avoided by purists, as they can refer to ‘people doing things to themselves’ instead of ‘a person doing something to themself’.
Other gender-neutral pronouns
Various other singular gender neutral pronouns have been suggested or used, but singular they seems like the most obvious candidate, and is now in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Pronouns like zie, ze, and xie don’t look natural in English, which is possibly why they haven’t become widely used. There also doesn’t seem to be any agreement on the possessive (‘their’) and dative (‘them’) forms of these pronouns. If any of these was someone’s pronoun, I’d still use it, though.
Special mention must be made of the excellent ‘e, eir, em’, which are metagender pronouns used by P Sufenas Virius Lupus. These pronouns get around the difficulties with consonants by simply omitting them. They were first proposed in 1890 and are now known as Spivak pronouns, after the latest novel to make use of them.
I also read a science fiction novel where the main character was nonbinary and used the pronouns ‘Yt’ and ‘Yts’.
I hope that this potted history of pronouns and other malleable words will have convinced you of the fluidity and malleability of language, and of the validity of singular they.
My pronouns are they/them. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.