A Brief History on "They" as a Singular Pronoun

“They” as a singular pronoun has been up for debate long before the popularity of the LGBTQIA+ community. It has had a history in English and the linguistics behind English for centuries, and now it is finally in the spotlight. While it’s here, I’m going to shed a light on the history of “they” as a singular pronoun and why grammatically and linguistically it is acceptable and correct.

To do that, though, I have to make something very clear: Language is in a constant state of change. The arbitrary rules that are set to the English language tend to null as the language evolves (in other words, as our language changes, the rules change with it).

“They” has been here long before we have…

“They” has been used as a gender-neutral and singular pronoun since 1375, where it appears in a Medieval romance entitled William and the Werewolf (Baron, 2018). It is also seen in notorious writers’ works such as Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, and The Canterbury Tales (notice how these are taught in school but it was left out the use of singular “they” …). However, since language has existed before written language was even thought about, it is likely that it has been around for even longer than that (I mean, someone had to think of using “they” for one person at some point!).

Grammatically speaking…

“They” has been denied as a singular pronoun because grammarians said that a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. However, if we refer back to rule number one of language, it is that it is ever-changing. Believe it or not, the word “you” was in the exact same position as “they” hundreds of years ago. “You” was referred to as a plural pronoun and “thee”, “thou”, and other various examples were used as the singular “you”. Eventually, “you” transformed into what we know it as today (a singular pronoun) We ditched the “thee” and “thou” after a lot of backlash (hmm… sound familiar?). Still don’t believe me? “We” went through a similar process as well. “We” was used as a singular pronoun by the rich up until a change happened with those less fortunate, and now we know it not as a singular but as a plural (Baron, 2018). Now, we can’t even imagine “you” as a plural pronoun or “we” as a singular and use them in our average conversations in the way we know and love.

With that being said, “they” is having a lot of the same conversations “you” and “we” did centuries ago. With our society, the language is evolving into a more inclusive and enriching environment for all; this is something we should be proud of, not something to fight. It has already been used and accepted by modern dictionaries as a singular pronoun, and the classic historical writers we praise have already sealed their acceptance on “they”.

Open your hearts and minds to the new, say goodbye to the old, and notice when you use “they” as a singular pronoun and don’t even realize it. We are in a constant state of change, and that is beautiful and scary and brings a whirlwind of new possibilities. We are apart of history.

A brief history of singular 'they'. (2019, March 29). Retrieved March 15, 2021, from https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/