Quickly fill in the blank: “Look! Someone left ________ bag.”
Most will answer “their” without hesitation, but grammarians object that the plural pronoun does not agree with the singular subject: someone. Although this usage of “their” with indefinite pronouns like “somebody,” “anybody,” and “nobody” is nearly universal in informal speech and writing, those who strive to be grammatically correct reject its usage in formal speech and writing.
Unfortunately, grammarians are left with several distasteful choices. They could use “his,” as the dusty old grammar books command. The traditional rule, however, is sexist. As I argue in my book Narrative Madness, Language does affect perception and behavior, and using masculine pronouns when gender is in doubt gives the impression that humans are mostly male. With such usage, women are the exception, the other.
What about “his and hers”? Two objections. Awkward, especially if writers have to keep using such phrases–and still sexist. Since the male comes first and the female follows, his dominance is affirmed. How about “hers and his” then? This solution answers the second objection about sexism, but it is even clunkier.
Some feminists suggest that writers just use “her” if gender is in doubt. We have assumed human beings are male for millennia. Why not let women be representative of the species for a time? After all, it would take thousands of years to balance the sexist language of the past. I sometimes take this approach myself, but it could be confusing for readers who look back for the feminine antecedent.
One way out is to avoid the dilemma by using a different part of speech, such as an article: “Look! Someone left a backpack.” Although it takes some practice, this solution is a good one and should be taken whenever possible. But our language is full of gendered pronouns, and it would begin to sound strange to avoid them entirely: “Look! Someone left a backpack. Should we leave it here or take it to the lost and found since that is the most likely place to look for one’s belongings? Personally, I think the person will first look here first since this is the class the person attends.”
Whenever possible, I encourage students to use plural nouns. Instead of “A good teacher should listen to her or his students,” write “Good teachers should listen to their students.” This effective solution is neither sexist or clumsy, but it does not work with indefinite pronouns like “someone,” which has that unshakable “one” in the word.
Many insist that English needs a singular, genderless pronoun, and I agree. A singular, genderless pronoun would help lift English speakers out of the false binary suggested by pronouns. I know several people who do not identify wholly with male or female genders (they are happy with their plumbing, but dress in the clothing of the so-called opposite gender). Such people should not be forced by language to make a choice that does not match the complexity of their gender identities.
After all, German has a neutral pronoun, so we could have one too. To answer the need, new pronouns have been invented: “Xe,” “Xem,” “Xir” (or “Xyr”) and “Xirself” (or “Xyrself”). These are admirable, but they will be difficult to introduce into general usage. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, of course. Few thought that “Ms.” would catch on, but it now commonly used in education, business, and daily life, so it is possible.
However, there is a simpler solution already in use. My friend Suppositori Spelling, a performer in San Francisco, uses the singular they on Facebook. I get notifications which read “Suppositori Spelling has updated their event.” “Their” allows Suppositori to exist online in a nether region between the genders. (Sometimes, Suppositori goes by their boy name “Jared,” then he is a he.) Although this usage of “their” with a single name may seem strange to some, it is becoming more common. My sister Cynthia Harris says that she uses the singular they when substitute teaching: “When I take roll at school, I now ask, ‘They aren’t here?’ instead of embarrassing said person by saying he or she and getting the wrong gender.” The singular they allows for greater gender ambiguity and diversity.
In most cases, such as “Someone left their bag,” the singular, genderless they comes readily to the tongue–we don’t have to retrain anyone–so it is the best solution. “They,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” “themself” and “themselves” should be accepted in formal speech and writing as singular pronouns, as long as the writer is consistent.
English teachers and grammarians know that language changes. “Reliable,” for example, was as unacceptable fifty years ago as “relatable” is now (when it is used in the sense of “you can relate to it,” as in “That movie is relatable.” “-able” should only be used with transitive verbs like “do,” not intransitive verbs followed by prepositions) Judging by the frequency of “relatable” in the writing of my students, “relatable” will soon be a reliable word. It isn’t acceptable yet, but it will be eventually, as is “reliable.” Bestselling author, Terri Blackstock lists fifteen changes to The Chicago Manual of Style in her blog post The Changing Grammar Rules. For instance, possessives are now formed in the usual way–with an apostrophe s–even if the second s is not pronounced: “I really like Xerxes’s new backpack.” Rules change, so our pronouns can change too.
I am not arguing, however, that the usage should change; I am arguing that it has already changed, and it is time for grammarians and English teachers to catch up. My colleague Peter Vahle wrote, “My thought is to take the ‘correct/incorrect’ determination out of the equation, and go with ‘Is it becoming standard or will it remain non-standard?’ With that in mind, it certainly is prevalent in many areas of the US.”
Not only is the singular they nearly universal, it is nothing new. It has been in use since the 15th century, steadily growing in popularity. Chaucer, the first great English writer, used it in this line in about 1400: “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame / They wol come up.” William Shakespeare wrote, “And everyone to rest themselves betake.” In his blog Motivated Grammar, Gabe Doyle lists other respected writers who have used it, including C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, George Eliot, William Thackeray, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde.” The Oxford English Dictionary, often called the foremost authority on the English language, has used the singular they for centuries. Writes Doyle, “Henry Churchyard reports examples from the Oxford English Dictionary in 1434, 1535, 1643, 1749, 1848, and a wide variety of years in between. There has literally been no point since 1400 when singular they went unattested in contemporary English. Respected organizations are moving towards acceptance of the singular they in formal speech and writing. Endorsements have appeared on the following websites: Oxford Dictionaries, Princeton.edu, Merriam-Webster.com, TheEconomist.com, and TheNYTimes.com.
Sometimes we must force the language to change, such as insisting on the use of “fire fighter” instead of “fireman, but at other times the language itself adapts to cultural changes, and that is what has happened here. Someone has left their bag, but it is a bag we all share, our bag of words and genders. Take your pick of gender pronouns, and let everyone else choose their own.
(Read an excellent overview of the evolving terminology about gender gathered and explained by the erudite Katie Fox in her post Gender Terminology, Old and New. Also, check out her comment below and her post responding directly to mine: The Great Singular “They” Debate.)
(Image from lovelivegrow.com. Thanks to everyone who commented on this question on Facebook.)