In praise of the singular ‘they’

24 September 2018

Folks, I wanted to pass on some good news, just in case you hadn’t heard: it’s officially OK to use ‘they’ in the singular!

In other words, it is no longer grammatically necessary to pointlessly gender a subject of a contract clause or legal fiction, such as the skilled person or the moron in a hurry. And by ‘no longer necessary’, I should of course say ‘once more unnecessary’, because from the 14th to the late 19th century, nothing could have made more sense - I mean, why force a gender onto something when you had no actual knowledge?

Then in 1890 it was decided that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females” in Acts of Parliament, officially anointing the idea that ‘he’ worked fine as a generic. It doesn’t though. When someone says ‘he’, we imagine a man.

Thank goodness it took a mere 125ish years for that patriarchal blip to be addressed. In 2015, the singular they was announced to be ‘word of the year’ by the American dialect society as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun” (so said Bill Walsh of the Washington Post, and as you may have guessed already, I agree). The UK may not have made such grand gestures, but since 2006, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage has declared the singular they as "unremarkable". An excellent example of British understatement.

And so I would encourage anyone who may have defaulted to a ‘he’ out of habit or training to consider, henceforth and forever more, the might of the singular they. I mean, if I was being a true campaigning feminist, I’d suggest you try out ‘she’, and that you keep using ‘she’ until you’ve balanced every default ‘he’ you’ve ever written before  giving ‘they’ a whirl. But who has the time for that sort of record keeping? Just make the switch to ‘they’, I say. After all, language is plastic and transforms to mirror the world we live in- equality need not be sacrificed in speech or on the page, so why not choose a word which is both correct and useful in reshaping the world to be a fairer place?

Caroline Day

Caroline Day


Our Expert
Caroline Day
Caroline Day
Location: Bristol (UK)

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