Chapter 2: Language, Power, and Privilege

2.5 Pronouns, Language Change, and the Grammar Police

 

Analogously to names, we also use pronouns to express things about our own identity and make guesses about other people’s identities. We’ll learn more about pronouns in Chapter 6, but for now here’s a simple explanation. In standardized varieties of English[1], first-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) refer to the person who is speaking, signing, or writing and second-person pronouns (you) are for the person being addressed. Third-person pronouns refer to someone else, and can often replace a noun phrase in a sentence. Here are some examples of English third-person pronouns.

inanimate singular it Samnang really enjoyed the latest book by Ivan Coyote.
Samnang really enjoyed it.
animate singular masculine he, him Samnang invited Steve to a movie.
Samnang invited him to a movie.
animate singular feminine she, her Samnang thinks the woman who lives next door is a good gardener.
Samnang thinks she is a good gardener.
animate singular ungendered they, them The passenger in Seat 3A forgot their coat.
They forgot their coat.

In the sentence, “Samnang really enjoyed the latest book by Ivan Coyote”, we can replace that noun phrase, the latest book by Ivan Coyote with it. “Samnang invited Steve to a movie.” We can replace Steve with him:  “Samnang invited him to a movie.” In the next sentence, “Samnang thinks the woman who lives next door is a good gardener”, we can replace that phrase with she: “Samnang thinks she is a good gardener”. In, “The passenger in Seat 3A forgot their coat”, we can replace that noun phrase with, “They forgot their coat.”

Notice that third-person singular pronouns give some vague clues about their referent: we assume that it refers to a thing, he to a boy or a man, and she to a woman or girl. Those three categories — thing, human male, human female — are very broad, and yet, they can still be used to do harm and exclude people. In many cultures there’s a general expectation that we use appropriately-gendered pronouns when we’re referring to people. Even when we meet a tiny baby who can’t possibly be offended, we’re still careful to ask “boy or girl?” and to use the relevant pronoun. After infancy, getting misgendered with the wrong pronouns can range from embarrassing to outright dangerous. Furthermore, a two-way distinction between masculine and feminine is too simple to describe the rich variation among human genders. A person who’s neither male nor female (for example, non-binary, genderqueer, or gender-fluid) can experience both he/him and she/her as misgendering. Here’s where the pronouns they and them are useful.

The pronoun they doesn’t offer many clues: it doesn’t specify whether the referents are animate or inanimate, masculine or feminine. Here are some examples of plural they:

plural ungendered
animacy unspecified
they, them The pistachio cupcakes are delicious.
They are delicious.The prof told the students that class was cancelled.
The prof told them that class was cancelled.

 

In fact, they doesn’t always even specify whether it’s singular or plural. Here are some more examples.

 number unspecified I don’t know who was in here but they left a big mess.
singular, gender unspecified One of my students told me they needed an extension.

In “I don’t know who was in here but they left a big mess”, we don’t know how many people left the big mess – it could be one, two, or twenty, and the pronoun they doesn’t give us any clues. In this next one, “One of my students told me they needed an extension”, it’s clearly only one student who asked for an extension, and either we don’t know their identity or it just isn’t relevant to the story, so they also does the job. This singular use of they has been common in English for about 600 years. These days, English is changing to include the use of they to refer to a single person whose identity we do know, as in, “Samnang told me they needed an extension.”

In many ways, this shift from unspecified-singular-they to specific-singular-they feels like a tiny change to the grammar of English. But since this change is related to a change in patriarchal gender norms, people who benefit from those norms tend to get prescriptive, insisting that singular they is always ungrammatical in every circumstance. The Chicago Manual of Style tells people “it is still considered ungrammatical”, and the AP Stylebook tells you it’s “acceptable in limited cases” but they’d really prefer if you didn’t use it. And then there are the extremely crabby folks like Jen Doll, who complains, “The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly. Stop the singular they. Stop it now.” (Doll 2013). But no matter how much the prescriptivists complain, specific-singular-they is getting used more and more widely. In 2015 the American Dialect Society voted it the Word of the Year and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary did the same in 2019.

The funny thing is, the English pronoun system went through a very similar change hundreds of years ago. In the 16th century, English used to have both a singular and a plural second-person pronoun. If you were talking to a group of people, you’d say you just like we do now. But if you were talking to just one person, you’d address them as thou or thee, like, “What classes art thou taking this term?” or “Can I buy thee a drink?”. By the 17th century, thou and thee had all but disappeared and were only reserved for conversations with people you’re very close to. So the pronoun you became both singular and plural. In modern English, we don’t have thou or thee at all unless we’re trying to be funny or old-fashioned. But it can be pretty useful to have a way of distinguishing between singular and plural, so some varieties of spoken English have other plural forms, like y’all or you guys or youse. Maybe your variety of English has one of these.

Linguists are conducting systematic research on how the change to English they is unfolding. Bjorkman (2017) found that English speakers with a conservative grammar didn’t use they in this way, but those with an “innovative” grammar did. Ackerman (2019) has proposed that the more trans and non-binary friends you have, the likelier your grammar is to have specific-singular-they. Conrod (2019) showed in their dissertation that older people were less likely to use it and younger people were more likely, and Konnelly & Cowper (2020) tracked the three stages of grammatical change that are in progress.

No one can stop language from changing. But language users can speed up language change. Misgendering people does real harm. One way to make it less likely that non-binary people will be misgendered is for English to make this small change to include specific-singular-they. And the way that language changes is for people to change how they use it. If you already have specific-singular-they in your grammar, use it as much as you can! And if you’d like to change your own mental grammar, Kirby Conrod (2017) gives some good advice — slow down, listen to people who use it in their own language, and practice! The more you use it, the more natural it will feel.


[self-test questions coming soon]


References

2015 Word of the Year is singular “they.” (2016, January 9). American Dialect Society.

Ackerman, L. (2019). Syntactic and cognitive issues in investigating gendered coreference. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 4(1).

Bjorkman, B. M. (2017). Singular they and the syntactic representation of gender in English. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 2(1), 80.

Conrod, K. (2017, December 4). How to do the absolute minimum (with pronouns). Medium.

Conrod, K. (2019). Pronouns Raising and Emerging [PhD Thesis]. University of Washington.

Doll, J. (2013, January 17). The Singular “They” Must Be Stopped. The Atlantic.

Konnelly, L., & Cowper, E. (2020). Gender diversity and morphosyntax: An account of singular they. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 5(1).

Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year 2019. (2019). Retrieved April 28, 2022.


  1. Many languages have more subtle distinctions than these in their pronoun systems but all languages encode at least a three-way difference between first-, second- and third-person pronouns.

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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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