Monthly Archives: October 2015

One Could Use Singular They, You Know

A question that I am sometimes asked as a linguist is why English can’t adopt a gender neutral pronoun alongside he, she and it. The irony is that English actually already has two options available, but they are rarely mentioned as being acceptable alternatives.

Singular Impersonal They

Any linguist worth their while will tell you that colloquial English widely uses singular impersonal they as common substitute for an unspecified person of any gender. This version of they shows singular agreement as can be seen in the examples below.

  • “A football player with a head injury must be cleared by a doctor before they can return to the game.”
  • “A person who doesn’t watch the news has only themself to blame if they are caught in the rain without an umbrella.”
  • “A person can’t help their birth” (Vanity Fair, William Thackery, 1848)
  • “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me As if I were their well-acquainted friend” (Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, 1594)

The examples, which include Thackery and Shakespeare, show that this construction has been in the language for many centuries, yet few advocate its use in Modern English.

Impersonal One

Another classic impersonal pronoun is one as in “One must be careful to watch the news on a regular basis.” (Thanks Linguistics Girl for this Reminder). And yet one rarely sees this pronoun mentioned.

I believe there are some reasons why these pronouns are often forgotten, but I will address that more next week.