The grammatical theory behind both the conservative and innovative usage of this hotly debated word.
Note: This was a blog post assignment I wrote and submitted in class as part of GET1036 The Logic of Language. Linguistics is far outside my area of expertise, but because the professor seemed to like this, I've reproduced it here for your enjoyment.
Ah, singular “they”. You might have noticed increasing use of it in sentences like “the doctor said they were staying in the hospital overnight”, where “they” is used in place of “he” or “she”. Proponents of this novel usage argue that this increases gender inclusivity, allowing the possibility for non-binary genders and fighting gender stereotypes (e.g. doctors are a famously gendered profession (Barlow, 2014)). Opponents contend that this is just wrong.
Here’s the kicker - it’s not actually new. Don’t believe me? Say this out loud: “Both sisters were uncomfortable enough. Each felt for the other, and of course for themselves.” How does it sound? Rather antiquated? You’ll be right – that’s a quote from Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice. It’s not just the Americans too; here’s Shakespeare: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me, as if I were their well-acquainted friend”. Evidently, singular “they” has had a long history.
What about its new usage? In formal terms, “they” is used with “an antecedent that is singular, definite, and specific, referring to an individual whose binary gender is known to both speaker and hearer.”
In this blog post based on Bronwyn Bjorkman’s 2017 paper “Singular they and the syntactic representation of gender in English”, we’ll explore the possible ways how singular “they” is used, both its longstanding (i.e. conservative) and its new (i.e. innovative) usage.
Maybe these old uses are just dated and nobody should use “they” in this way.
No. Although the use of singular “they” has decreased, especially in formal writing, it is still used in daily speech, e.g. “Did somebody leave their phone on that table?”. Although it may be tempting to, we can’t just rule out the correctness of singular “they”.
Maybe there are no issues with using they in place of the other singular binary pronouns (“he” and “she”); maybe we just have subconscious gender biases and we all just need to get past that.
Well… apparently not. Although I think as a society, we do have many subconscious gender biases that we should certainly get past, there are grammatical reasons why even innovative “they” users don’t do this. Here are some examples where just swapping “he” or “she” out with “they” doesn’t work (the * means the sentence in ungrammatical):
1. * Donald Trump jeopardized their presidency.
2. * John left their dishes undone.
Hit me with the formal description of this usage, you say? OK, here you go: “the antecedent remains singular, definite, and specific, but is now a proper given name or gender-specific noun” (emphasis mine) (Bjorkman, 2017). In other words, this usage is ungrammatical because “they” refers to someone with a known binary gender. If “they” was gender-neutral, we should be able to use it with such antecedents.
Okay, maybe singular “they” can be used to refer to vague human antecedents of some sort.
This is pretty much spot on – but only for conservative usage of singular “they”. Formally, we could define “solid” antecedents, which are “intended to combine referentiality, specificity, and definiteness”. Singular “they” can thus be described as preferring “nonsolid” antecedents (Bjorkman, 2017). In other words, “they” can safely refer to some arbitrary but gendered individual. Here is an example:
3. A girl may be more willing to go the club if their entrance fees are waived.
However, users of innovative they do use singular “they” to refer to actual people with known binary genders (i.e. “singular specific definite” antecedents), even though they do not use it if the “antecedent has been introduced by a gender-specific noun or proper name”. Examples:
4. Your boss just left office to pick up their kids (assuming the speaker knows the boss’ binary gender).
5. * On Twitter, @alphamale96 ranted about their diminishing role in the project.
6. * The air stewardess hurriedly tidied their hair.
Innovative “they” users can use “they” even if the specific person’s gender is known, whereas in these cases conservative “they” users must use a gendered pronoun. How can we explain this?
Certain nouns and given names effectively have grammatical gender, and pronouns used must not specify fewer gender features than their antecedents.
For example, in example 4 above, although the speaker knows the binary gender of the boss, the antecedent “your boss” is not gendered, and so the use of the ungendered “they” to refer to the boss is grammatical. However, in example 6, because the antecedent “air stewardess” is gendered and the ungendered “they” specifies fewer gender features, the sentence is ungrammatical. Bjorkman (2017) concludes, “A pronoun can add to the linguistic features associated with a referent, but it cannot underspecify them”.
“Hold on”, you say. “English has no grammatical genders, unlike French, German, and other languages.” You are right. Bjorkman is asserting that these gender features are not just semantic (read: in the meaning of the word), but a more fundamental feature of the word.
This hypothesis is the key finding of Bjorkman’s paper which explains both innovative and conservative use of singular “they”.
With a concrete understanding of the linguistic theory behind the use of singular “they”, we can better predict how the usage of singular “they” will evolve in the coming years, as well as its theoretical limitations.
Personally, this paper illuminates the fundamental issues preventing the innovative usage of “they” from being widely accepted in the short term, as too many names and nouns have effective grammatical gender. To me, this will prevent gender non-binary individuals from becoming truly mainstream in the Anglosphere as our language simply will not support it. I hope that with time, and with efforts in mass media like having a female character named Michael in the TV series “Star Trek: Discovery”, more words will lose its grammatical gender and singular “they” will finally be able to refer to everyone.
Bjorkman, Bronwyn M. 2017. Singular they and the syntactic representation of gender in English. Glossa 2:1-13.
Barlow, R. (2014, January 16). BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias: BU Today. Retrieved April 5, 2020, from https://www.bu.edu/articles/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias/