Editing the New Language: Shifting Gender Norms and the Grammatical Conventions

by Amy Verhaeghe

Published at 2016-04-27

The "They" Debate

The use of "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun has been the subject of much debate in the publishing world over the last couple of years. The 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style insists that "the only gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun in English is it, which doesn’t refer to humans" and that attempts to find a gender-neutral singular pronoun "won’t succeed" and "invite credibility problems" (section 5.227).


Opinions seem to be shifting, however, since the 16th edition was published in 2010. For example, last year the Washington Post Style Guide included "they" as a singular pronoun and the American Dialect Society voted to make "they," in its singular form, the word of the year for 2015. And, of course, most people already use "they" as a singular pronoun (i.e., most people would say "everyone wants their plants to grow" rather than "everyone wants his or her plants to grow").


Proponents argue that using "they" as a singular pronoun is more reflective of the way English is actually used. This usage is also inclusive of people who do not fall on either side of the gender binary. This is because people who identify as genderqueer, agender, non-binary, genderfluid, or another gender identity that is neither male nor female might use gender-neutral pronouns such as "they" or "hir" (pronounced “HERE”) in place of "he" or "her."


Opponents of the shift towards using "they" as a singular personal pronoun, however, argue that it is grammatically incorrect and colloquial, and therefore inappropriate for formal writing.  

Evolving Language

Language, of course, evolves as the ways in which people speak and write shift. New words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary each year with little controversy. Some new words from 2015 include: 


The practice of funding a project or venture by raising money from a large number of people, each of whom contributes a relatively small amount, typically via the Internet.


A cigarette-shaped device containing a nicotine-based liquid or other substance that is vaporized and inhaled, used to simulate the experience of smoking.



Of or relating to the practice of eating discarded food, typically collected from the refuse of shops or restaurants, for ethical or ecological reasons; (of a person) engaging in this practice.

hot mess

A person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination.



Tight-fitting stretch trousers for women, styled to resemble a pair of denim jeans



Spoil a photograph of (a person or thing) by unexpectedly appearing in the camera's field of view as the picture is taken, typically as a prank or practical joke.


A holiday spent in one's home country rather than abroad, or one spent at home and involving day trips to local attractions.

So, it is perfectly acceptable to write "those freegans were a hot mess when they photobombed the filming of an e-cigarette commercial, but were able to redeem themselves to their collective through a successful crowdfunding campaign to publish a book extolling the virtues of staycations and denouncing the environmental destruction wrought by the production of jeggings," but writing "I met a tourist on the street and gave them directions" is incorrect.

Why is there so much resistance to accepting the use of the singular "they" given that hundreds of new words are legitimized each year through their inclusion in the OED? Sure, adding new words to the dictionary does not alter grammatical conventions, but is there something else going on?

In Search of a Gender Neutral Singular Pronoun

Writing about the need for a gender-neutral pronoun in 1913, British feminist Helena Swanwick asserted that 'the common pronoun is non-existent and I have not used the neuter, lest it should alarm nervous persons. Perhaps when we have got over the panic fear of unsexing ourselves, we may find it safe to speak of a human, just as we do of a baby, as 'it.'"


Although "it" has been rightfully critiqued for its tendency to dehumanize the subject to which it refers, Swanwick makes an interesting observation about the nervousness, panic, and fear people seem to exhibit when the use of gender-neutral pronouns are proposed.


Following its declaration that there is no gender-neutral singular personal pronoun in English, Chicago lists "Nine techniques for achieving gender neutrality" in section 5.225. The list usefully outlines ways in which writers and editors can rephrase sentences to avoid the use or overuse of the phrase "he or she." The stylebook states that producing gender-neutral language involves a lot of thought and hard work, and admits that each of the suggestions risk changing the meaning of the sentence or irritating readers.


But strict adherence to grammatical dictates is more important than clear and enjoyable writing, right? Apparently so.


Historical Roots of Singular "They"


Just as new words are introduced to the English language, the rules of grammar change. Before the mid-twentieth century, "they" was commonly used as a singular personal pronoun. Some prominent examples include:


"There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend."

– William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors (c. 1594)


"'I can think of but one thing—Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?'"

– Jane Austen, Emma (1815)



"Mrs. Lynde says she always feels shocked when she hears of anyone ever having been naughty, no matter how small they were."


– Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908)


So perhaps we should look back to gain insights into how grammar could and should work. Instead of trying to find the best ways to avoid using "they" as a singular personal pronoun, since, according to some, it is grammatically incorrect, maybe it is time to change grammatical conventions that no longer work, if they ever did.


**For more on gender-neutral pronouns, check out our blog post The Tyranny of "He" or "She"**