Has someone ever asked you to refer to them as they instead of him or her? Are you hedging because you can’t possibly refer to one single person as they? What if we told you that they has been used to refer to just one person since at least the 1300s?
How can they be a pronoun for one person?
Elementary English teachers tend to go over the basic pronouns. Those are the words in the English language that can be subbed in when nouns (people, places, or things) aren’t up for playing … or when it just takes too much time to say the full noun form.
I, he, she, and you are all pronouns you might have learned along the way. Maybe you also learned that they were used to refer to singular nouns or words that describe just one person, one place, or one thing. “I am going to eat chocolate for breakfast.” is a sentence that you automatically know is just about you, the one person who is living their best life with a decadent daily treat.
But, you notice how we just used they when we were talking about a whole bunch of pronouns? They is often used as something called a plural pronoun, a word that’s used to describe multiple people, places, or things. They all read Dictionary.com, for example, would probably mean a bunch of really cool logophiles sat around on a Friday night looking for definitions together, right? (Hey, we tried).
But, they is not only a plural pronoun.
This chameleon word is also a singular pronoun, and it has been for centuries. Etymologists estimate that as far back as the 1300s, they has been used as a gender neutral pronoun, a word that was substituted in place of either he (a masculine singular pronoun) or she (a feminine singular pronoun). Even Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and other beloved writers of the English literary canon have been opting for singular they for centuries. Fast forward to this century when The American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year was the gender-neutral singular use of they. Plus, remember Bill Walsh, a copy editor at the Washington Post, announcing that the Post’s official style guide now allows the use of gender-neutral singular they. He called the use of they “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
Basically, opposition of the usage is waning these days.
They is actually an extremely useful word
When we don’t know the gender of the person we’re talking about, they really comes in handy. We even used a variation of it earlier—Did you catch where we said their? Scroll back up!
It’s also a good way for people who don’t identify with the binary genders of female and male to describe themselves because they and them are not gendered.
Sharing our pronouns is a way of sharing our gender identity with the world. You might identify as female and ask that people refer to you as she/her. Or, maybe you identify as male and your friends use he/him when they talk about you. For other folks, they/them are the appropriate pronouns to use.
So, next time someone asks you to use they in the singular, tell them you’re on board. The dictionary approves!