Singular They – It’s Official: It’s a Thing

by | December 24, 2019 |

Singular they splashed into the news on December 9 when Merriam-Webster declared they the word of the year. Of interest to the dictionary makers is the use of singular they to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary, who does not identify as either he or she. Singular they takes the verb are, as does plural we and also you which can be either singular or plural.

Most linguists were, like, yawn. Even the Merriam-Webster announcement came with the acknowledgement that English speakers have been using they in a singular sense for 600 years. Their examples:

Everyone likes pizza, don’t they?

No one has to come if they don’t want to.

They has long been a gender-neutral singular pronoun just like everyone, someone and anyone. However, the dictionary makers chose they for 2019 because lookups for this word increased 313% over the previous year.

I’ll add that the singular sense holds for all forms of they , e.g. when it’s used possessively:

Somebody forgot their umbrella.

What do I have to contribute to the discussion? Two things:

The Origins of They, Them, Their

Modern English is the descendent of a West Germanic language originally spoken by the Angles and Saxons on the continental homeland. These tribes came to (invaded?) England in 449 AD.

A few centuries later, namely in the 8th and 9th centuries, the Danes invaded the northeast coast of England and established settlements. The area under their control goes by the name The Danelaw. Linguists call the language the Danes spoke at the time Old Norse. It is a North Germanic language.

Many common words in Modern English come from Old Norse. I used one in the preceding paragraph, namely the verb to call. (The Old English word was hatan.) All words that begin with sound [sk] come from Old Norse (except for skeleton and squirrel). For instance: skin, sky, scab, score, skein, skirt, scant, scrub, scathe, skill. And many more nouns and verbs and adjectives, speaking of which: Where would we be without the wonderful adjective awkward?

The Old English third person plural pronouns were hīe (nominative), hīe (accusative), heom (dative) and heora (genitive). The Old English plural form of the verb to be was sind or sindon.

Does these words look at all familiar? No, they don’t, because we don’t use them anymore.

Guess where the Modern English third person plural pronouns they, them, their along with are come from?

Answer: Old Norse.

A fundamental truth about language holds that pronouns are part of the core vocabulary. Once you have them, you don’t let them go. But English speakers did. So, the singular use of they is just one more quirk of this pronoun series.

(Speaking of weird pronouns in English, no one knows the etymological source of she.)

The Process of Language Change

Language change proceeds item by item. A pattern might emerge after which it extends.

Take the ending -ing. In Old English it was found on exactly six words and all six were nouns, for instance, darling. Over the centuries the ending found its way onto verbs with a progressive meaning, but not all verbs and not all at once.

For instance, in the 17th century it was proper English to say:

The house is a-building.

because the -ing pattern had not yet extended to the construction to be + past participle, which eventually became:

The house is being built.

It was not until the 20th century that the pattern extended to the construction to be + adjective, as in:

We are being reasonable.

This grammatical extension took about 1000 years.

Now take they. I’ve already noted that it has been used as a singular for 600 years. What has changed?

Answer: Its syntactic position.

Look again at the examples:

Everyone likes pizza, don’t they?

No one has to come if they don’t want to.

In the first, singular they comes in the tag question, at the end of the sentence.

In the second, singular they comes in the if-clause, but it works only if the main clause comes first. It sounds odd to say:

If they don’t want to, no one has to come.

When they comes first, you expect something more like:

If they don’t want to, they don’t have to come.

Now, in 2019, the pattern for singular they has extended to occupy the first place in a sentence. And when it does, it carries the meaning nonbinary gender.

Yes, certain communities, such as the transgendered community, have promoted the use of singular they, but they are only doing what all groups of speakers do when mobilizing language for their purposes: they find the patterns already in play and extend them. It’s completely normal.

Final Note

For a laugh check out James Acaster’s bit on the word they:

See also: Dictionary and the World of Lexicography. Two posts on dictionaries in one month!

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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