The Tragedy of the Singular ‘They’

Tom Flynn

In this op-ed, I set aside my secular humanist hat. Today I write as a journalist and a concerned user of the English language. My opinions are my own.

A growing movement seeks to repurpose the third-person plural personal pronouns they and them as singular (more accurately, number-agnostic). The goal behind it is laudable: to create epicene (gender-blind) pronouns respectful to persons whose gender identities are nonbinary—that is, outside the traditional male-female dichotomy.

For unknown reasons, English personal pronouns are irregular; there’s a third-person plural form (they/them) but no corresponding singular form. It exists, of course, but it is impersonal, hence demeaning when used in reference to a person. As society comes to view gender as a spectrum, correcting this flaw in the language becomes increasingly urgent.

For reasons no less murky, the solution that’s garnered wide acceptance is to deepen the irregularity—by decreeing that the plural pronouns they and them may also be singular.

General acceptance of singular they/them seems inevitable, though as I write the verdict is far from unanimous. Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster has endorsed singular they/them. So did the American Psychological Association, whose influential style guide shapes the format for scientific journals, including our sister publication the Skeptical Inquirer. An early adopter, the Washington Post broke from all then-current style guides and endorsed singular they/them in 2015. The prim New York Times has only recently started using it—as well as Mx., the new honorific for gender-nonconforming individuals; this change is recent enough that when the terms are used in a story, they’re usually accompanied by a brief in-text explanation.

Still, opposition remains. The Modern Language Association does not endorse singular they/them, commenting that “in formal writing it is best to reword for agreement in number.” The Associated Press disallows it. The Chicago Manual of Style “recommends avoiding its use” in formal writing. Because Free Inquiry’s house style sheet is based on the Chicago Manual, FI does not permit use of singular they/them. (At least, not yet.) We continue to correct sexist language by changing (for example) mankind to humankind, rewriting some passages into the form “one does this” or “one might think,” or by imposing the admittedly kludgy his or her—all the while recognizing that his or her falls short of doing justice to a nonbinary gender spectrum. The language’s need for a better tool is clear.

Having a gender-neutral third-person personal pronoun is a great idea. Trying to address that need with singular they/them is a wretched idea. Why?

Singular They/Them: Occasional or Compulsory? Singular they/them has deep roots in casual or nonstandard usage. Shakespeare employed it now and then. So did Jane Austen. In everyday conversation, almost everyone uses it … sometimes. Until recently, there was an unspoken criterion for when to use singular they or them and when not to. It was pretty simple: use it if it makes the expression more compact; skip it where its use would sow confusion.

Of course, if singular they or them becomes the standard indicator of a gender-nonconforming person’s identity, any damp-finger-in-the-breeze criterion for its use will necessarily be abandoned. Then it will have to be used in all situations whenever someone prefers that form of address. Some social-justice activists assert that we’re already there. Higher education is the canary in this coal mine: some faculty members who declined to address each student by that student’s chosen pronoun have been disciplined, even fired.1

Yet if—or should I say when?—singular they/them becomes fully the norm, the cost will be substantial. As reliably plural pronouns, they and them enable English users to construct remarkably compact and powerful sentences. Making them number-agnostic will sharply curtail their utility, as we’ll see shortly.

How Did We Get Here? There’s a low-hanging absurdity here. Where, one can’t help asking, did the idea come from that the best way to demonstrate inclusivity toward the gender-fluid is to make they/them agnostic about number? To the best of my knowledge, no oppressed outgroup rails against the tyranny of being unitary. No one’s shouting, “Don’t dare say there can’t be five of me!” To address a gender issue by tweaking the way two workhorse pronouns address number strikes me as nonsensical.

A more reasonable approach would be simply to correct the irregularity in the language by designating or creating a new third-person singular personal pronoun to fill the gap.

Candidates abound. My cursory search identified thirteen suitable pronoun families that various specialists have proposed. On my list, the oldest appeared in 1884, another in 1890. (University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron has counted several dozen, the oldest dating to 1850.2) Back then, no one pondered how to address persons of nonbinary gender; the early proposals were meant simply to regularize English grammar. Most are more recent and explicitly aimed at accommodating the gender-fluid. Some of them are pretty strange—I doubt if peh/pehm ever stood much chance of catching on.

What all these candidates share is that they are synthetic—that is, they are coinages.

Proposed Gender-Neutral Pronouns

e, em (1890)

e is smiling

I watched em

es phone rang

that is es

e likes emself

E, Em

E is smiling

I watched Em

Eir phone rang

that is Eirs

E likes Emself

ey, em

ey is smiling

I watched em

eir phone rang

that is eirs

ey likes eirself

hu, hum

hu is smiling

I watched hum

hus phone rang

that is hus

hu likes humself

peh, pehm

peh is smiling

I watched pehm

peh’s phone rang

that is peh’s

peh likes pehself

per, per

per is smiling

I watched per

per phone rang

that is pers

per likes perself

thon, thon (1884)

thon is smiling

I watched thon

thons phone rang

that is thons

thon likes thonself

ve, ver

ve is smiling

I watched ver

vis phone rang

that is vis

ve likes verself

xe, xem

xe is smiling

I watched xem

xyr phone rang

that is xyrs

xe likes xemself

ze, hir, hir

ze (zie, sie) is smiling

I watched hir

hir phone rang

that is hirs

ze (zie, sie) likes hirself

ze, mer, zer

ze is smiling

I watched mer

zer phone rang

that is zers

ze likes zerself

ze, zir, zem

ze (zie, sie) is smiling

I watched zir/zem

zir/zes phone rang

that is zirs/zes

ze (zie, sie) likes zirself/zemself

zhe, zhim

zhe is smiling

I watched zhim

zher phone rang

that is zhers

zhe likes zhimself


The problem is that there are so many of these pronoun families. There’s no clear imperative to focus popular enthusiasm behind just one. Even so, scattered writers have inserted one or another of them into their work. Science-fiction author Jeffrey A. Carver employed hir in his 1989 novel From a Changeling Star. Transgender author Kate Bornstein used ze and hir in her 1996 book Nearly Roadkill: An Infobahn Erotic Adventure. More recently, Ann Leckie (whose 2013 debut science-fiction novel Ancillary Justice won just about every award in the field) used E and Eir, a pronoun family championed by the mathematician Michael David Spivak (born 1940) in her 2017 novel Provenance.

Rather than settling on any of these coinages, American culture seems hellbent on embracing the worst possible option: taking two plural pronouns that do much useful work and hobbling them by making them number-agnostic.

The Linguistic Cost of Singular They/Them. What do we have to lose? Imagine a simple interaction between, say, a homeowner and two door-knocking missionaries. Back when they and them were reliably plural, one might write about it with admirable compactness: “She told them to jump in the lake.”

When them is incontestably plural, it takes few words to establish that the woman confronts multiple interlocutors and even that she is the homeowner. Unquestionably the interaction is one-versus-several, not between one person and one other.

If singular they/them prevails, that economical specificity is lost: “They told them to jump in the lake.”

Wha-a-at? Suddenly it’s possible that the woman confronts just one other person. Or maybe the woman is one of the door-knockers. Maybe there are no women. Maybe they’re all women. Maybe one or more of them is nonbinary. Possibilities proliferate! The writer must expend many more words delineating a situation that the reliably plural them once limned with consummate ease.

This example merely hints at the confusion that singular they/them can cause in formal writing, particularly when a writer wields it without cuing readers that he, she, or ze is doing so. (See what I did there?) The reader enters a minefield of confusion when any individual or any group might be referred to as they or them.

For another example—a paraphrase of an actual Facebook post by a parent approving of a teacher communicating this way: “One student spoke out of turn and the other students turned to look at them” (emphasis added). Oh, void help us all.

Familiarity’s Falsity. Let’s review. The problem that launched our inquiry was an irregularity in English, the lack of an epicene singular personal pronoun. Multiple solutions are available in the form of synthetic gender-neutral pronoun families (see table above), any of which could address the problem specifically. Yet the “solution” that enjoys the most cultural traction is a clunky workaround that recklessly blurs the existing pronouns they and them.

Why’s that? What perceived advantage makes singular they or them preferable to the (in my view, vastly superior) synthetic forms?

For most proponents, it boils down to the fact that they and them are familiar. They’re dictionary words, in contrast to synthetic terms—coinages such as ve, xe, or ze/zir—which are seen as strange, difficult, or weird.

This only seems compelling until we recall that the twentieth century’s most successful gender-related enhancement of the English language was synthetic. A coinage.

Hell, a neologism!

I refer, of course, to Ms.

The Improbable Rise of Ms. The idea of an honorific that conveys no information about a woman’s marital status has deep antecedents in English. But stuffy nineteenth-century convention buried them all, making Miss and Mrs. the inescapable forms of address. As the twentieth century turned, one simply couldn’t address a woman formally without knowing whether or not she “belonged” to some man. The first modern suggestion to revive Ms. as a matrimony-agnostic honorific came quickly, in 1901. The proposal was reissued in subsequent decades, only to bob impotently in the intellectual froth much as hu/hum and its counterparts do today. Then a friend of second-wave feminist leader Gloria Steinem heard Ms. mentioned in an airy conversation on New York City public-radio station WBAI and told Steinem about it. Steinem chose the term to title her new feminist periodical. The 1972 launch of Ms. magazine garnered vast publicity. Only one month later, the U.S. Government Printing Office approved Ms. for use in government documents! Not that there wasn’t still controversy. In 1976, Marvel Comics debuted Ms. Marvel, “the first feminist superhero” (essentially the female Captain Marvel portrayed by Brie Larson in the 2019 blockbuster film). That Ms. had spread even to the comics elicited a fiery denunciation from New York Times columnist and grammar stickler William Safire (1929–2009). Safire’s column is remembered today as much for its futility as for its ferocity. (For what it’s worth, a few years later Safire bowed to the inevitability of Ms., accepting its use in connection with 1984 vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.)

From such arbitrary roots came a major change to the language. Ms. enjoys universal acceptance today. The moral of the story is that coined words can work. And at the very least, we should be leery of claims that they/them must be preferred to synthetic terms on grounds of familiarity alone. Personally, I regard they/them’s familiarity as a weakness, not a strength.

As it happens, so does science.

What Does Science Say? There’s not a huge amount of research, but what there is leans in favor of synthetic forms—and against singular they/them.

But first, you need a little background about Swedish.

Swedish, like English, has male and female third-person singular pronouns (han and hon, respectively). In 2012, a popular children’s book introduced hen, a synthetic gender-neutral pronoun. National debate ensued; some Swedes still detest the coinage. Even so, after initially condemning hen, the nation’s more-or-less authoritative national academy ushered it into formal Swedish just two years after hen’s debut.

Okay, on to the research.

Seven years after hen’s introduction, UCLA political psychologist Efrén Pérez and Washington University (St. Louis) political scientist Margit Tavits published an investigation into its effects in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They had two thousand native Swedish speakers describe a drawing of a cartoon person and dog that included no gender cues. Most respondents used hen in their descriptions. In other tests too, respondents deployed the gender-neutral pronoun handily when gender ambiguity was present. Speaking to journalist Adam Rogers, Pérez speculated that the synthetic word was not only “performing the way … proponents argued it would,” it was actually making speakers of Swedish more likely to recognize the gender-neutral option rather than assume everything should be masculine or feminine.3 (I describe these findings as speculation because no similar study was conducted before hen’s introduction. Granted, there’s no sound reason anyone should have conducted such a study then. Nonetheless, Pérez and Tavits have a data set with no possible control group.)

Another study by Swedish researchers Anna Lindqvist, Emma Aurora Renström, and Marie Gustafsson Sendén looked at gender assumptions among speakers of Swedish and English. Results confirmed that Swedes view the synthetic hen as truly gender-neutral, splitting 50/50 when asked to assign the word either masculine or feminine gender. The Swedish equivalent of he/she produced the same result. Among English speakers, the synthetic epicene pronoun ze performed the same way.

The outcome was starkly different when English-speakers were asked to assign a gender to dictionary-word terms including the person and, yes, singular they. The same respondents who split 50/50 when asked to assign a gender to ze associated singular they with the masculine by a thumping 68 percent margin.4 Perhaps because subjects associated it with a male-dominated past, subjects imputed maleness to a superficially gender-neutral dictionary word—which a majority did not do when faced with a coinage.

“Old terms bring some baggage,” summarized Rogers. “It turns out that they is no hen. Are no hen. Whatever.”

Researcher Sendén concluded, “A smart new word might be more efficient.”5

Summing Up. Gender-fluid persons desperately need a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun. This void in the structure of English needs to be filled. Today’s heir apparent, singular they/them, solves the problem—but at needless expense, complicating expression in situations that a reliably plural they/them once handled compactly.

Moreover, the available research suggests that:

  1. A synthetic gender-neutral pronoun can work; and
  2. Such a pronoun, which has no associations based on prior usage, may work better than repurposed existing pronouns, which many language users seem to already have imbued with presumptive masculine character.

On so many levels, it would have been preferable to adopt one of the synthetic forms that offers distinct singular and plural personal pronouns. That would solve the irregularity without degrading the usefulness of they and them. Sadly, it’s probably too late—the lesser choice is already too far ahead.

Before very long, I fear, the Chicago Manual will cave on singular they/them, and Free Inquiry will have to take up the clumsy, confusing, repugnant thing. (Maybe I’ll have retired by then. Hey, one can hope.)

A decade or two from now, people will look back on confident, compact sentences such as “She told them to jump in the lake” as baffling artifacts. They’ll gawp like present-day teens staring in bewilderment at a rotary-dial telephone. Then someone will ask, “How did people back then express so much in so few words?” Someone else will ask, “And how did anybody else understand them?”

At that point, the tragedy of singular they will be complete.

 

Notes

  1. The popular notion that each person should be able to choose any term to express one’s gender identity—and that this choice should be compulsory for all who interact with that person—strikes me as problematic. The community of language users deserves a voice in determining which innovations are acceptable and which carry too high a cost. As the rest of this op-ed will make clear, I wish the English language’s user community had been more forthright about declaring singular they/them off limits.
  2. Christen McCurdy, “Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Actually Doomed?” Pacific Standard, October 8, 2013. https://psmag.com/social-justice/gender-neutral-pronouns-actually-doomed-67600.
  3. “The results establish that individual use of gender-neutral pronouns reduces the mental salience of males. This shift is associated with people expressing less bias in favor of traditional gender roles and categories, as manifested in more positive attitudes toward women and LGBT individuals in public affairs.” Margit Tavits and Efrén O. Pérez, “Language Influences Mass Opinion toward Gender and LGBT Equality,” PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America). PNAS August 20, 2019, 116 (34) 16781–16786; first published August 5, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1908156116.
  4. Anna Lindqvist, Emma Aurora Renström, and Marie Gustafsson Sendén, “Reducing a Male Bias in Language? Establishing the Efficiency of Three Different Gender-Fair Language Strategies.” Sex Roles 81, 109–117, July 15, 2019. doi:10.1007/s11199-018-0974-9.
  5. Adam Rogers, “Actually, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Can Change a Culture.” Wired.com, posted August 15, 2019.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).