Have you noticed how versatile the word ‘they’ has become?
It used to be used just to refer to more than one person or thing: for example, ‘They went on a date.’ But in recent years this word has come to be used by speakers and writers who don’t want to use the word ‘it’: for example, ‘The United States wanted to oust Saddam Hussein, so they declared war on Iraq.’ And, more and more, people are using ‘they’ (and its grammatical variants) when they don’t want to indicate a person’s gender: ‘Can you recognise the traveller who has 280,000 people looking after them?’
These ‘new’ uses of the word ‘they’ do not conform to traditional grammar, which dictates that a plural pronoun (‘they’) and a singular pronoun (‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’) are not interchangeable. As children, we learned to derive meaning from grammatical devices like pronouns. So, in this last example, you would read ‘Can you recognise the traveller who has’ and immediately infer that the sentence relates to one traveller only (it doesn’t read ‘Can you recognise the travellers who have…’). But then at the end of the sentence the word ‘them’ is used instead of a singular pronoun.
Why? It’s because ‘they’ has become shorthand for ‘that person, though I’m not sure or I don’t want to tell you whether the person is male or female’.
As is usually the case in linguistic evolution, these adaptations of the word ‘they’ started in casual speech, progressed to informal written communication and now even appear in formal communications, like in the media examples pictured.
People who use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun may do so for various reasons: the subject is generic, or the subject’s gender is unknown or irrelevant. In the ‘Kids React Fact’ example, the subject is Barack Obama but the writer uses the possessive pronoun ‘their’.
Perhaps the writer became muddled by the reference to all the United States presidents, and mistakenly believed the subject of the sentence was plural rather than singular. But if the writer is actually trying to make a point that Obama’s gender is irrelevant to his opinion of gay marriage, this is gender neutrality gone mad.
It makes no sense whatsoever to use the plural possessive pronoun when referring to Obama and his opinions. No writer should engage in such strange pronoun use. English grammar has enough exceptions as it is without making it even more confusing. As a traditionalist, I think that using ‘they’ is just a slack way of making your text inclusive, whether for marketing reasons or out of fear of being considered politically incorrect.
What are the alternatives?
In the 20th century, once the generic use of the male pronoun became frowned upon, the trend was to use the phrase ‘he or she’ or to alternate between them. As the Australian Government’s Style Manual notes, this approach can make your text ‘less elegant’. It can even become distracting.
Another option is to drop the pronoun altogether. Often, you can do without it. This approach may require you to adopt the passive voice or otherwise shuffle the wording. So, for example, you could rephrase our first example to this: ‘Can you recognise the traveller who is being looked after by 280,000 people?’ The meaning is unchanged and the subject is consistently singular.
Next, you could try repeating the noun or noun phrase. I once saw a TV ad where the slogan was: ‘Let your dog show their true potential. Feed them Optimum.’ Obviously the advertiser wanted to speak directly to the target market by talking about ‘your dog’, but didn’t want to say ‘its potential’ because most dog owners adopt gendered language for their pets. But the meaning would be identical and the grammar flawless if you instead said: ‘Let your dog reach full potential. Feed your dog Optimum.’
A fourth possibility is to adopt the plural throughout. The disadvantage of this approach is that plural form is more general and therefore not as direct.
Yet another technique is to use the second person instead of the third person. For example, instead of ‘A writer should mind their pronouns’ I could write ‘You should mind your pronouns’.
Finally, you can use the gender-neutral third-person pronoun. That’s right, there is one! It’s ‘one’. When one chooses to use this pronoun, one may be considered overly formal, but at least one’s writing is grammatically correct. If ‘one’ were more generally used, people wouldn’t be using ‘they’ in its place.
The above excerpt from the Law Institute Journal is an example of a communicator who, instead of choosing between the above alternatives, used several of them. The result is one very messy sentence. In a grammatical world full of pronoun possibilities it seems that many writers just cannot choose a side! Believe it or not, the person quoted is Michael Kirby AC CMG, former justice of the High Court of Australia. It makes me wonder: if a judge of the High Court can’t always use pronouns consistently, what hope do the rest of us have?
We’re all prone to making grammatical mistakes off the cuff. If you have time for careful consideration, you can always resolve this sort of dilemma. Here’s one solution: ‘But if one judge insists on the right to have a personal opinion, then that judge has to be willing to accord the same space to colleagues…’
Try applying these alternatives for yourself. And, if you encounter a sentence you think really cannot be rephrased to be both gender-neutral and grammatically correct, your humble pedant is here to assist. Simply post the problem sentence below.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 384 (June–August 2014).