One of the most interesting things to me is how language is constantly evolving. Each year, there are new words added to the dictionary, style guides are updated, and once-sacred rules are softened or even eliminated (does anyone remember the big argument over “e-mail” vs. “email”?). The American Dialect Society voted for the singular “they” as their word of the year. The Washington Post adopted the singular “they” into its style guide, as has The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Dictionary.com, all within the past year.
Trying to figure out what pronoun to use in each situation isn’t exactly a new grammatical question. As early as 1794, “they” as a singular pronoun was suggested as a way to identify a singular entity without it being tied to gender. I find it comforting to know that grammarians and writers have been discussing this issue for over 200 years. It makes me feel like I’m not the only one to wonder which word I should be using in the proper context.
“Everyone has to pay ___ taxes.” Which pronoun do you first think of to fill in that blank? His? Her? Their? Saying “Everyone has to pay his taxes” or “Everyone has to pay her taxes” could be misleading or, frankly, a bit patronizing. The singular version of “they” creates not only the economy of speech (using fewer words to communicate something everyone will understand) but also reflects what’s acceptable in common language. It eliminates the need to address a specific gender identity, especially when that type of identity is irrelevant to the sentence. Or, you could rework your sentence entirely.
How much of this is influenced by social issues is something that will play out in textbooks of the future. There are articles discussing the adoption of other gender-neutral pronouns like “hen” and “ze.” What ultimately ends up in the style guides of the future will be something this Grammar Hammer will be watching.
For some great historical context, check out the essay by Dennis Baron, University of Illinois: “The Words That Failed: A chronology of early non-binary pronouns”.
Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services with more than 20 years’ experience counseling brands on their content. She also authors Beyond PR’s long-running Grammar Hammer series. Follow Cathy on Twitter @cathyspicer and tweet her your #grammargripes.
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