Writing for Scholarly Publication: How I Learned to Relax and Accept the “Singular They”

by David Fox
Librarian Emeritus, University of Saskatchewan

I’m old-fashioned. I was taught that pronouns and their antecedents should agree. Sentences like “James Keelaghan updated their Facebook status” drive me crazy. And so, until recently, I disdained the practice in the popular media and everyday speech of using the pronoun “they” (and its variants: their, them, themselves), to refer to a single individual, wherever that person’s sex is indeterminate. As an editor at Partnership, I assiduously stamped out any and all instances of this usage in the belief that it is not appropriate in academic writing. However, lately I’ve come to accept that use of the “singular they”, as it’s known in the grammatical literature, is okay in certain circumstances – mostly when there’s no other better option.

This year, Sweden officially adopted the pronoun “hen” as an alternative to “han” (he) or “hon” (she) for use in contexts where a person’s gender is unknown or immaterial (Sweden…). Unfortunately, there is no gender-neutral third person singular pronoun in English. Recognition of the need for such a pronoun is nothing new. Over the years, a multitude of alternative pronouns have been suggested (Gender…), but none have received widespread acceptance.

To our grandparents’ generation, the accepted generic singular pronoun was “he”. Also in our grandparents’ day, married women were often referred to by their husband’s name, e.g., Mrs. Edward Humdihoodle. Today both of these practices seem quaint and sexist – the feminist movement has rendered them obsolete. Adding to the pressure for a gender-neutral pronoun is the tricky question of how to refer to persons undergoing gender transition. Such individuals would likely appreciate the availability of a gender-neutral pronoun.

So what is the alternative to using “he” as the default third person singular pronoun? Using “he or she” is awkward. Some have suggested alternating between “he” and “she”. For librarianship, nursing, and other occupations where the large majority of practitioners are female, the argument could be made that, on purely statistical grounds, the default singular pronoun should be “she”. None of these solutions seems ideal. Consider also the following sentences where neither “his” nor “her” is appropriate:

I support the right of every mother or father to educate her children as she desires.

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?
(adapted from Pinker 257)

This brings us to consideration of the singular they. Christine Neilson, in her February 2015 Brain-Work post, recommended Steven Pinker’s book: The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. It’s not the sort of book you can sit down and read from cover to cover, but it contains much common sense advice for the modern writer. Pinker challenges traditional thinking and practice on a number of grammatical issues, always with thoroughly reasoned and frequently witty arguments. Pinker points out that the singular they has a long history and was used by Shakespeare, Austen, Chaucer, the King James Bible, Swift, Byron, Thackery, Wharton, Shaw, and Auden (258).

The singular they seems most natural when used with non-specific antecedents such as “no ____”, “any ____”, someone, “anyone”, “everyone”, etc. Pinker gives an example from a 2013 press release by U.S. President Obama: “No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like” (255).

A singular they/their would also resolve the gender conflict in the sentences quoted above:

I support the right of every mother or father to educate their children as they desire.

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold their breath for four minutes?

Achieving Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement
If you know the subject’s gender, then use the appropriate pronoun. Write “The bride addressed her wedding party” rather than “The bride addressed their wedding party.”

If you can make the pronoun and its antecedent agree by making the antecedent plural, without significantly altering the meaning of the sentence, then do so:

While the chief librarian advocates for the library, they can also often see more clearly, and with less bias, the larger university picture.

would become:

While chief librarians advocate for the library, they can also often see more clearly, and with less bias, the larger university picture.

If all else fails, it’s acceptable to use a singular they now and then, but don’t overdo it. While not ideal, until the English equivalent of “hen” emerges, I suspect that use of the singular they will become increasingly widespread and may eventually become more common in academic writing. Pinker says, “The main danger in using these forms [of the singular they] is that a more-grammatical-than-thou reader may falsely accuse you of making an error. If they do, tell them that Jane Austen and I think it’s fine” (261).

Works Cited
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.

“Gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-specific_and_gender-neutral_pronouns

“Sweden adds gender-neutral pronoun to dictionary.” Theguardian 24 March 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/24/sweden-adds-gender-neutral-pronoun-to-dictionary

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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