Writing from a third person point of view is a technique favoured by many authors. It allows the reader to act as a narrator, experiencing the thoughts and feelings of characters without having to see the world directly through their eyes. When describing a situation or person in this way, typically the most common pronouns are himself, herself, themselves, and the word of the year for 2015, “they”. A natural assumption is that “they” is a plural term, however, not only is the singular use of “they” becoming more culturally relevant, but “they” was actually a word borrowed from Scandinavian vikings.
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EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE
The act of borrowing language should be seen as a call for the evolution of language. Language, either written or spoken, is a reflection of our society and vice versa. If we don’t have a word for something, we create one, usually by seeking inspiration from other languages, and then formulating a grammatical framework for people to understand how it is used. Language is continually evolving; the grammatical rules and common associations that accompany words do not remain the same. Instead, they reflect cultural and societal shifts. At a local level, the same word can have different connotations depending on the dialect or demographic of the individuals using it. If we consider the singular use of “they”, with its brazen disregard for adhering to traditional grammar, it inevitably means that the rules surrounding its use are no longer relevant to our linguistic needs.
THE ORIGINS OF “THEY”
Back in the twelfth century, the English language did not have a word that could refer to a group or collective of people in the third person, at least not in the way “they” now does. So, we did what any individual does when we don’t know a word; we adapted one from another language that we could mould, and then went about creating a grammatical framework to support it. Anglo-Saxon pronouns had an awful habit of sounding very similar, so differentiating the context was as tricky for natives as it was for the viking invaders. To that end, “they” filled a hole no other word had up until that point, and although scholars at the time probably scoffed at the inaccuracies of the word, its usefulness persevered.
WORD OF THE YEAR: THEY
“They” has a long-running history of winning word of the year, both as a plural and a singular. However, its recognition in 2015 reflects a significant resurgence of the singular use of “they” as a need for a gender-neutral pronoun that does not conform to the traditional male/female binary. You could consider “they” a wild child of the English language. For years, its use in writing has been debated by authors and purists for its ability to refer to one person where gender is unknown or irrelevant, or in reference to a group of people. Despite the debate surrounding it, “they” has won word of the year twice, each time corresponding to a rise and subsequent fall in widespread use.
USING THEY IN THE THIRD PERSON
Regardless of your point of view surrounding plural or singular use of the word “they”, the following examples give insight into its current use in the English language. The following examples exhibit the word “they” in its plural form:
- “Jack and Jill went up the hill, together they seemed very happy”.
- “Although they hated it, both Tom and John knew they would have to take the test”.
The following examples exhibit the word “they” in its singular form:
- “They were really excited about being part of the choir”.
- “I spoke to them; they seemed convinced it was the right thing to do”.
Although the last two examples are intended to be singular, these sentences could also refer to more than one person in the right context.
SINGULAR THEY SUPPORTS GRAMMATICAL GENDER
“They” continues to be used as a singular for a straightforward reason; we have not developed a word that performs the same role, despite numerous attempts throughout history. Examples date back to the early 1800s calling for the invention of a singular common-gender pronoun. Several words, including “um” and “E” were proposed, but failed to be adopted. If we move past the need to create another word when “they” exists as a perfectly viable option, what is it that makes the word so relevant in modern day English?
“They” represents a means of referring to someone who identifies as trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming. In much the same way that the Anglo-Saxons adapted our language to fit societal use, we are now faced with the same need. Our current language and the accompanying grammatical framework does not fit, nor represents our society, and as such, the need to adapt or introduce new pronouns is required. Although the debate surrounding which pronouns individuals would like to be referred to as rages on, “they” is a ready-made solution that, despite some dispute, has been used in the singular for hundreds of years.