If you are a member of the nerdy world of grammarians, you know that there are “controversial” grammar topics. One of those is the use of the Oxford comma. Another is the use of the singular they.
They is a pronoun. A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun. For example, you would use they to perhaps stand in for the boys (The boys went to the circus/They went to the circus). Or you would use she to stand in for Lucy (Lucy is mowing the lawn/She is mowing the lawn).
We can see that obviously she is singular; it stands in for one female. He is singular and stands in for one male. It is singular and stands in for one “nongendered” noun.
They, on the other hand, is obviously plural, along with its relatives them and their. I think we can all agree on that one.
But how many times have you said, or heard someone say, Everyone is bringing their book to the meeting or something similar? Let’s pick that sentence apart:
We have something in grammar called agreement. Agreement means that a singular subject will have a singular verb form to go with it. And a singular noun or pronoun will have a singular pronoun of the same gender stand in for it. Now as much as the pronoun everyone sounds plural, it isn’t. It is singular. You can tell because you use a singular verb with it; it just sounds right. You wouldn’t say Everyone are bringing. But you would say They are bringing because they is plural. Okay, so we have a singular subject (everyone) and a matching singular verb (is bringing), but what about their book? Their is plural. It doesn’t agree.
Now if we said Everyone in the girls’ book club is bringing her book to the meeting, we would all be happy. Everyone in the boys’ book club is bringing his book to the meeting would also make us happy.
But if everyone refers to a mixture of male and female, or if we simply don’t know, what do we do? Well, we used to just say his or her and be done with it. Actually, before that, we probably used to just say his and be done with it — before the days of political correctness and women’s rights. And people have tried his/her and alternating his and her, but neither of those solutions work.
What to do . . . what to do . . .
Well, most everyone just uses their. It is easier to use one word than that clunky old his or her. And most people don’t think or care about that agreement rule anyway.
The English language, so far, doesn’t have a word that can stand in for either a singular male or female. I hear that a word is being developed as we speak . . . for the transgender population, not for us grammarians, but we will take it!
But until such a word is added to our language? A short while after my first book came out, which was six years ago, my cover designer ( an extremely intelligent gentleman) told me that the grammar powers-that-be (which I believe are the Webster folks) had anointed the use of the singular they as completely proper. Therefore, the sentence Everyone is bringing their book to the meeting is fine.
Most people use it and have been using it, without knowing or caring, forever. However, many people, especially when making a speech, do use he or she, or his or her. Similarly, most grammarians and language purists are horrified by the use — and even more, the acceptance — of the singular they.
So, you can do as you wish. I tell anyone I am teaching to use he or she (his or hers) because you can never be accused of being too right! After all, many of “my generation” may not know that the singular they is now okay. I am curious to know your take on this topic. Yay or nay? Please comment!
Grammar Diva News:
My new book, The Best Little Grammar Book Ever: Speak and Write with Confidence/Avoid Common Mistakes (Second Edition) will be out in paperback and e-book in June. It is currently available for presale on Kindle at a special low price, which will change when the book is released on June 25. Here is the link for the presale at a special price of $4.99 instead of the regular price of $8.99.