The Third-Person Singular “They” is Here to Stay

Word "focus" in a dictionary

Since English isn’t a gendered language, use of the word “they” has caught on.

For some traditional English teachers, the use of the word “they” as a singular third-person pronoun might be upsetting, but according to the American Dialect Society, that usage is here to stay. In fact it’s so valuable, they made it their Word of the Year for 2015.

Many Americans have been using it in speech for years, effectively as a gender-neutral pronoun, something that English lacks. This may be because English, unlike most other languages, is not gendered, and although there are some nouns with specific gender connotations (largely professions, like actor and actress), those nouns do not a gendered language make.

Traditionally, English speakers were supposed to use “his or her” to indicate nonspecific gender for a subject or object in a sentence. This is, as everyone who has ever tried to use it knows, incredibly awkward and can utterly ruin the feel of a sentence.

But using “they” as the third-person singular has become ubiquitous, to the chagrin of some grammatically-inclined people. But those people need to remember something that far too many people forget: Languages evolve, especially living languages like English.

And it’s not just a silly fad, either. Not only does it make English ever so slightly easier, it also serves an inclusive role. Many people, especially trans, gender fluid, or agender people, don’t like to use he or she to refer to themselves. Since, again, there wasn’t a gender neutral pronoun in English, they didn’t have anywhere to turn, short of adopting more appropriate pronouns from other languages or making them up–habits which generally don’t stick. Language is essential to expressing identity, and it can also be essential to oppressing that identity, which is something that everyone, but especially teachers, should be avoiding.


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