A LITTLE WORD THAT MEANS A LOT: A REASSESSMENT OF SINGULAR THEY IN A NEW ERA OF GENDER POLITICS

By Abigail C. Saguy and Juliet A. Williams

            In 2019, Merriam-Webster named they its Word of the Year in recognition of the “surprising fact” that lookups had risen a remarkable 313% over the previous year. This surge of interest in singular they attests to the rising visibility of genderqueer, nonbinary, and trans activism in the United States. A 2018 survey found that a majority of Americans have heard about gender-neutral pronouns and that nearly twenty percent of Americans know someone who uses nonbinary personal pronouns. In recent years, gender-inclusive pronoun practices—including pronoun “go-rounds” and adding pronouns to email signatures—have been widely adopted on campuses and in workplaces, and new legal protections have been created to prevent misgendering with pronouns.

            Skeptics dismiss these practices as a fad, but English speakers have been using the singular they in situations when a person’s gender was nonspecific or unknown for at least 600 years. Esteemed authors including William Shakespeare and Jane Austen used it unapologetically as an indefinite pronoun. Today, it likely would go unnoticed to hear someone exclaim, “That car just cut me off! They should learn to drive.”

            In fact, the idea that singular they is ungrammatical was produced by a political campaign that began in the late eighteenth century. At that time, scholarly authorities insisted that singular he be used instead of singular they on the grounds that “the Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.” In promoting usage of he as a generic pronoun, grammarians sought to discredit competing options. They dismissed the paired binary term he or she as cumbersome and argued that singular they creates ambiguity about whether we are discussing one person or many. Of course, the generic he creates a parallel ambiguity with respect to gender, but they pushed this concern aside.

            This campaign to discredit singular they cast a shadow of grammatical disrepute over singular they that endures to the present. It was not dispelled by nonsexist language reformers, who sidestepped the question of what the ideal replacement for the generic he would be. By promoting a hodge-podge of alternatives—ranging from using neologisms like s/he, to rephrasing sentences to avoid the need for third-person singular pronouns altogether—the belief that singular they is incorrect has persisted.

            Meanwhile, since the early 2010s, a new generation of language reformers, led by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and more (LGBTQ+) activists, has taken up the cause of singular they. These activists promote language practices that recognize people with nonbinary gender identities, incuding singular they used as a nonbinary personal pronoun. Using singular they as a nonbinary personal pronoun resists biological essentialism and affirms everyone’s right to determine their own gender identity.

            Concomitantly, some people have advocated that singular they be used for everyone as a universal pronoun on the grounds that it is “inclusive and flexible” and protects people’s privacy, among other reasons. Yet, some transgender advocates  have objected to this proposal  arguing that denying gender recognition by avoiding gendering can be experienced as a form of violence. Finally, some people now use singular they as a default indefinite pronoun to refer to a person who is known but whose self-defined gender identity is not.

            Our Gender & Society article, “A Little Word That Means A Lot: A Reassessment of Singular They in a New Era of Gender Politics,” considers how singular they can be used to resist and redo aspects of the prevailing gender structure. We identify three distinct usages of singular they: 1) as a nonbinary personal pronoun; 2) as a universal gender-neutral pronoun; and 3) as an indefinite pronoun when a person’s self-identified gender is unknown. While previous research has focused primarily on singular they as a nonbinary personal pronoun, our paper points to the importance of all three usages. We offer new insight into how nonbinary they challenges dominant gender norms and practices beyond incorporating additional gender categories. We propose further investigation of how using gender-neutral pronouns for everyone in specific contexts can advance progressive activists’ goals. Finally, we argue that the longstanding usage of singular they as an indefinite pronoun has new importance today in affirming gender as a self-determined identity.

            Our analysis demonstrates that using singular they advances gender justice. Buying into the depoliticized grammar argument is not merely ahistorical but politically costly in the struggle for gender justice.

Abigail C. Saguy is a Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies and the Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Juliet A. Williams is a Professor of Gender Studies and the Chair of the Social Science Interdepartmental Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.