Hello, pronoun...are you singular?

Nov 18, 2012

“People tell me that the pronoun ‘they’ cannot be singular. But here’s the thing - it already is,” says Anne Curzan. She’s a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

Most speakers already use “they” as a singular pronoun in speech.

“In writing, we are told to use ‘he’ or ‘she,’ or change the whole sentence,” Curzan says.

English teachers have been telling us for years that “they” is not a singular pronoun. But, Curzan offers a few examples of indefinite pronouns that speakers make singular.

“They do it with an indefinite pronoun, something like ‘someone’ or ‘everyone ’ -- for example, "Someone who knows their way around town should draw the map.

"We will do it with a generic noun like ‘teacher,’ so if  you don’t know if the teacher is male or female, we’re just talking generally; we will say ‘a teacher should learn their students' names," Curzan explains.

"And then sometimes you will hear speakers do it, even when they know the gender of the person, but it’s irrelevant or they don’t want to tell you. You’ll hear someone say, ‘you know my neighbor used that fertilizer on their lawn, and it killed all the grass,’” Curzan says.

She says it not the first pronoun to be both plural and singular.

“We used to have a singular/plural distinction. ‘Thou’ was singular, ‘you’ was plural. As ‘thou’ died, ‘you’ took over both functions. And speakers have found out that ‘they,’ for them, seems to be the best solution to the generic pronoun problem," Curzan says.