They As A Singular

During my winter semester I had a professor who insisted that we use “he” or “she” in our papers. He refused to accept “they” as singular. But “they” has been used as a singular in English for a long time. Writings from historical authors prove as much. Shakespeare and Jane Austin are just two of these authors.

It is true that “they” had lost favor as a singular for a while, but it is reemerging with the increased acceptance of the transgender community. Personally, I’m happy that it is coming back. “He” as an all encompassing term is, frankly, insulting. Why is it okay to assume that a woman is a man if you don’t know her gender but it’s considered wrong to assume that a man is a woman if you don’t know his gender? And “he/she” isn’t much better. For one, it’s more time consuming than “they” and, for another, it assumes that gender is binary. 

“They” is both more inclusive and more convenient. So why do so many people get up in arms over the use of “they” as a singular?

9 responses to “They As A Singular

  • Laura

    There are just too many instances when using “they,” “their,” and “theirs” is awkward or confusing. If you didn’t know the gender of an artist, would you write “The artist put down their brush because they were done painting”?


  • nikeyo

    Mainly, just cause it is a plural word.

    However, English and language is fluid and always changing. Our concept of gender is also changing. I can understand it for formal papers (legal, academic, etc) but…. Change shouldn’t be treated with such strictness, I think.


  • Eldritch Edain

    The English language has always changed rapidly. Try reading Chaucer in the original. But many people resist change. Language purists usually are advocating standards from a half century ago. But to be a real purist one would have to speak Anglo-Saxon.


  • Jnana Hodson

    The problem would be avoided more in the use of “one,” rather than “he,” but that’s become arch.
    Using “they” for the singular loses precision. It’s too much like the royal “we” meaning “I.”
    Another problem arises in the lack of a third-person singular that designates just a male, only, definitively.
    Extending that, “mankind,” for example, means male and female. “Males” has a totally different ring.
    I’m old school, but the “they” as a singular still strikes me as sloppy thinking. By the way, I’ve been around folks who use “thee” for the singular second person, and I lament the blurring that we have in “you” for both one and all.


  • agrrosewood

    That is certainly strange… My professors actual insist that we should never use the word “he” when not referring to a man, as it is sexist! I prefer the word “they” in those case, and yes, I use it in my papers. No one has ever complained. It’s a good thing!


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