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Sunday, July 10, 2016

EwR Grammar - The Official Correct Usage of THEY and THEIR in the Singular Form

"THEY" for "HE" or "SHE"
and "THEIR" for "HIS" or "HER"

What's official?  You can read the official news at the end of this article.  Before answering this question, let's take a look at the following situation.  Imagine that you want to recommend to someone that the Internet has a lot of resources for a student who wants to practice the English language.  How do you say that?  Look at the following four recommendations, and decide which one you would use.
(1) If a student wants to practice English, then he has a lot of resources on the Internet to choose from.

(2) If a student wants to practice English, then she has a lot of resources on the Internet to choose from.

(3) If a student wants to practice English, then he or she (s/he) has a lot of resources on the Internet to choose from.

(4) If a student wants to practice English, then they have a lot of resources on the Internet to choose from.
Which recommendation did you choose?  Do you think that there is more than one possible way to make this suggestion to someone?  Let's briefly analyze each of the aforementioned items in order to determine the best way to give someone this advice.  Afterwards, the question about the official news will be answered.

To begin with, let's look at the male gender option.  If you chose number (1) above, then some people might say that your recommendation is sexist because you have excluded a woman who might want to practice English on the Internet. However, grammarians from the old school of thought would agree with this historical option, since their argument is that historically "he" referred to either gender.  On the other hand, if both you and your listening partner understand that you are referring only to a person from a group of men (e.g., a group of priests), then logically this statement is correct to use.

Secondly, the female gender option also exists.  If you chose the second statement above, then you also have to be careful in the case that you are not talking exclusively about a person from a group of nuns, for example.  If your recommendation refers only to a woman who might want to practice English, then you might be ridiculed as being a feminist.
In the third place, let's turn to the gender-neutral option.  Many modern writers today choose this grammatical gender option since it respects the possibility that you are talking about either a man or a woman.  This option is gender-happy, meaning that nobody's feelings will generally be hurt when you use this optionHowever, there is a slight inconvenience to using this option.  You have to write "he and she" or "she and he" every time you refer to either a man or a woman.  Some writers use the shortened form "s/he" in order to make it a little bit easier to write.  But the real difficulty comes when you have to say this out loud during speech It's a little awkward to always say "he or she" or "she or he" whenever you speak about the possibility of including either sex.

Fourth of all, there exists the current singular "they" option.  Actually, it's not really that new because it was originally used for the first time in the year 1395 when Chaucer's Pardoner's Prologue cites the singular "they" (And whoso fyndeth hum out of swich blame, They wol come up...).  This option is a comeback from the 16th century usage as well, but today is still considered controversial for cultured people.  Even though a literate might say "they" for "he or she" during speech, this controversial option would not be used as a correct form for writing practice.  Nevertheless, the vast majority of speakers of the English language now use this option for both speech and writing.

Don't forget that when you use this fourth option you have to use the plural form of a verb when you refer to "they" for "he and she".  Hence, as shown in the fourth statement above, "If a student wants to practice English, then they have a lot of resources on the Internet to choose from."  We refer to "a student" in the beginning of this statement, but change from a singular to a plural form when referring to the possibility of both a man and a woman; hence "they" at the end of the statement.

Keep the following in mind when you decide to use any of the four options mentioned above. The first three options all use the singular form of verbs associated with either "he" or "she".  In the first three examples above, the verb "have" is used in the third person singular form for "he" or "she"; namely, "he has", "she has", and "he or she (s/he) has".  However, the fourth option requires a plural verb when you refer to "they".  Therefore, in our example above, the fourth statement is written "they have", since "he and she" are both being addressed together as possibilities.

Now let's return to the original question at the beginning of this article.  The official news is that now it is acceptable to use "they" for "he" or "she", and "their" for "his" or "hers".  The fourth singular "they" option is now correct to use according to the following authorities. 

The Canadian Department of Justice endorsed this usage in an official publication in January 2015.  Their recommendation states the following.  "Consider using the third-person pronouns "they", "their", "them", "themselves" or "theirs" to refer to a singular indefinite noun, to avoid the unnatural language that results from repeating the noun." 

John McIntyre, who is the copy editor at the Baltimore Sun, has permitted the usage of the singular "they" since the year 2012.  He states, "Fellow editors who agree with my judgment should, rather than enforce an ill-advised rule out of fear of arousing the sticklers, do as I do and allow the singular they, as much as the constraints imposed by their hidebound masters permit. That is how usages become accepted as standard."

The language columnist, Lane Greene, at The Economist based in Berlin began advocating the usage of the singular "they" in February of 2014 with his following comment. "Singular 'they' is common in almost everyone’s relaxed speech. It may not make stylistic sense for a doctoral thesis. But it does for many people who reject traditional gender."

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary states that "The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts." Their definition of the word "they" is that it is "used as third person pronoun serving as the plural of he, she, or it or referring to a group of two or more individuals not all of the same sex."

Mark Nichol in his article "Is 'They' Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?" makes the following comment.  "...R.W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, predict the inevitable dominance of the singular they."
There is much more evidence that supports the officialness of using "they" and "their" in the singular form.  This issue is not closed by all means, and the debate goes on between educated and common people using the English language.  However, the majority of the users of the English language have already established this dilemma as a truth.

It is logical to think that since you can officially use "they" to refer to "he" or "she", then it is also acceptable to use "their" for either "his" or "her".  For example, "If you ask someone for his/her/their opinion, then listen to what he/she/they have to say."  The singular forms "they" and "their" are more often used in speech than in writing.

In conclusion, since language is constantly evolving, and the people who use English as their native language determine the changes that take place to it, it is reasonable to understand why the singular "they" and "their" options are replacing the previous male gender, female gender and gender-neutral options.  It's a matter of time before intellectuals decide to give in and use the popular form already established by the masses.

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