Has someone ever asked you to refer to them as they instead of he or she? Or, 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?
Language teachers instruct us on the basic pronouns. Those are the words in a 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.
In English, I, he, she, you, and it are all pronouns you surely learned along the way. Maybe you also learned that they were used to refer to singular nouns, i.e., 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, notice how we just used they when we were talking about a whole bunch of things? They is used as 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).
Check out much more from Dictionary.com on Gender & Sexuality.
But, they is not only a plural pronoun.
This chameleon word is also a singular pronoun, and it has been for centuries. Lexicographers have determined 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), e.g., Each student should get their supplies ready for class. Each student is singular, but we don’t know (or need to know) the gender/sex identity of each student in this situation, so their is perfectly handy. Even Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and other beloved writers of the English literary canon used singular they.
Fast forward to this century when The American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year was the gender-neutral singular use of they. This vote, as it happened, came just after the late Bill Walsh, a copyeditor at the Washington Post, announced that the newspaper’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 an extremely important, powerful, and useful way for people who don’t identify with the binary genders of female and male to describe themselves, because they and them are not explicitly gendered. (They/them/their can be nonbinary pronouns.)
Sharing our pronouns—as the practice of divulging what pronouns you prefer to use for yourself is called—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/hers. Or, maybe you identify as male and your friends use he/him/his when they talk about you. For other folks, they/them/their and even singular theirself/themself 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!