A centuries-old word with a modern twist

The acceptable use of a singular ‘they’ pronoun made official a linguistic trend already in use for centuries. People who are not represented by binary pronouns say it’s a helpful step, but a small one.

Six people holding up signs with their pronouns.
Image: iStock/Ekaterina Tveitan

Six years ago, a linguistic shift was celebrated among grammar sticklers. On March 24, 2017, at the annual American Copy Editors Society conference held that year in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Associated Press (AP) style guide announced the acceptability of a singular “they” pronoun. Specifically, AP announced that “they” is acceptable to use with a singular antecedent, not only when the identity of the subject is unknown.

This change reflected what English speakers have been using for centuries. In accepting the use of “they,” the Associated Press was only making official the way English speakers had long been communicating. And it was not the first: The Washington Post had adopted a singular “they” in 2015 and “they” was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year in 2015.

“For people who identify as ‘they/them’ it’s great,” says Erin Cross, director of the Penn LGBT Center. “But where else can we go as far as language? The AP decision wasn’t necessarily about identity, it was just easier for other people to accept. Now it seems to be the alternative for gender binary pronouns. But it’s amazing to me how unuseful ‘they’ is.”

Cross, who is also affiliated faculty with the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program in the School of Arts & Sciences, and the Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies, adds, “It doesn’t feel comfortable to many students because to them it feels very put upon, and it doesn’t fit for a lot of people. ‘They’ doesn’t work as a pronoun for everyone as a gender-neutral choice.”

For writers and editors, the shift makes language easier. And for people for whom they/them pronouns fit their identity, it makes a difference. “It’s sticky because ‘they’ has been used for so long, and queerness and nonbinary identities and gender diversity have always been present and are also not new,” says Wesley Alvers, a second-year masters in social work student in the School of Social Policy & Practice, and an intern at the LGBT Center. Alvers identifies as agender and uses they/them pronouns. “I struggle that ‘they’ needs to be affirmed by institutions. Someone or some entity maintaining what is acceptable is sticky.”

“But in an academic setting or professional setting, and even in a casual setting, being able to use ‘they’ and have people understand it is extraordinary,” Alvers says. “I can get around in a different way than I could a few years ago. I started using ‘they’ pronouns exclusively last year. I don’t have to explain it as much anymore. The more it’s adopted by institutions, the easier my life will be in terms of communicating with people.”

Gareth Roberts.
Gareth Roberts is an associate professor of linguistics in the School of Arts & Sciences. (Image: Eric Sucar)

“The recent change is not really about singular ‘they’ as such, but about using ‘they’ to refer to a specific, identified individual. Approving that for the AP Style Guide is actually a very small shift,” says Gareth Roberts, associate professor of linguistics in the School of Arts & Sciences.

The word “they” originated from the Scandinavian language dating back to the Scandinavian occupation of northern England, and had replaced its native equivalent by around 1400. Use of a singular “they” goes back to at least the 15th century. “There are examples of a singular ‘they’ in the King James Bible, for instance,” Roberts says. “This was really well-established in English, and no one cared for a very long time, it was a perfectly normal part of the English language.”

It was in the 18th century when some grammarians started to disapprove of singular “they,” on the grounds that a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. “In the 18th and 19th century, people began to raise an eyebrow and thought, ‘perhaps we shouldn’t do this,’” says Roberts.

When AP deems language usage acceptable, it doesn’t indicate “proper” English, but rather that the usage is accepted in their publications. Style guides exist for standardization and consistency, not as the gatekeepers of language.

“One thing to keep in mind is that some of these decisions are acknowledged to be somewhat arbitrary. Whether we choose to use the British or American spelling of a word does not make it correct, it’s just consistent,” Roberts says.

He adds that people often believe that there exists a perfect, ideal English that speakers deviate from. “In fact, the way that English speakers use the language is English. But people also have attitudes and opinions about what is better and what’s worse, and that usually has nothing to do with what is clearer language. For example, ‘y’all’ is a very useful word. You would think the AP style guide would promote this word because it’s useful. But it doesn’t, because there is a stereotype about ‘who’ uses it; it’s considered informal or improper.”

“The use of ‘they’ to refer to a singular antecedent is already well established in the language. So, it’s a relatively small shift,” Roberts adds. “There have been a number of suggestions for nongendered singular person pronouns, and some are quite old now, such as ‘ze.’ These have not gained enormous ground. We are used to using ‘they’ already when we are not sure of someone’s gender. It’s a small step in this case; people are already used to it.”

The English language has scrubbed some historically gendered terms from its lexicon for decades as society has progressed towards more equality for women, especially in the workforce. Letters to the editors historically began “Dear sirs,” as nearly all editorial staff were men. Waitresses, stewardesses, policemen, firemen—these words have been replaced by gender-neutral descriptors. Gender neutrality as a concept has grown more acceptable but only for classes of words, not so much for specific individuals. The existence of a gender-neutral or agender individual is common in some circles, especially in progressive and diverse communities, but in more conservative communities, it is far less understood and accepted. The current legislative landscape in some states is hostile to transgender individuals, and many school districts and institutions do not offer nonbinary or agender pronoun options, say Alvers and Cross.

Left: Wes Alvers. Right: Erin Cross.
Wes Alvers (left) is a second-year student in the School of Social Policy & Practice. Erin Cross (right) is the director of the Penn LGBT Center and affiliated faculty with the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program in the School of Arts & Sciences. (Images: Stephen McCann and Eric Sucar)

“I think people feel more comfortable using they/them pronouns now, but there are hundreds of pronouns that aren’t being recognized. I am affirmed personally by this decision of AP, but there are people out there who aren’t validated,” says Alvers.

“For a very long time, I did not know how to explain my gender or lack thereof; I identify as agender, not associating with gender. I didn’t have the words ‘agender’ and ‘nonbinary’ and it created a tension in me,” Alvers says. “My own adoption of ‘they’ has been gradual. Pronouns in general have a complexity to them; to me, pronouns are not inherently gendered. When people assume identity based on pronouns, we feed into the concept of predetermined gender options and, in turn, miss out on the intricacies of individual identity.”

The decision by the AP makes the life of a writer and editor easier, but will it make other people’s life easier?

“I do see this as helpful in terms of visibility and for people envisioning the possibility of their identity. But at the same time, I don’t see a post-transphobic reality because of a language change,” says Alvers. “People aren’t changing how they conceptualize something like my identity when they use a ‘they’ pronoun.”