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They're out there – and they're taking over

Copy editors around the country are mulling over what to do about the pronoun "they" used as a singular, because the issue just won't go away.

So we decided to revisit the topic, because increasingly "they" is what's used in everyday language.

"The issue is what to do with a noun where the gender is unknown or unspecified.

It is also an issue for individuals who identify as transgender, or gender queer, or outside the gender binary, who will say 'I don't feel comfortable with 'he' or 'she,'" Curzan explains.

"If we think about the nouns that are gender unspecified, or gender unknown, it would be something like, "Every teacher should learn (fill in the blank) students' names – should learn 'his' students' names, should learn 'her' students names, should learn 'their' students' names."

Curzan says back in the 18th century, the proper term was the generic "he."

"In the 1970s, second-wave feminism said that was a sexist construction, and what we moved to is 'he' or 'she,' but many of us find that a little awkward or a little wordy," Curzan says. "The fact is, when we speak, we use the singular 'they.'"

So for example, we say "A teacher should learn their students' names." Or "I was talking to a friend of mine, and they told me I should see this movie."

Curzan says some people question whether this is logical.

"They say it's not logical that the pronoun 'they' refers to one person. This is a place where logic just doesn't apply to language. We do use 'they' as a singular. To say it's not possible, to me is not a logical thing to say."

But Curzan says using "they" doesn't work all the time.

"Sometimes it is ambiguous, and that's a fair point. A sentence I came up with was, 'I was talking to my mother and a friend of hers, and they said ... '

Now there it's unclear: Is the 'they' both your mother and her friend, or just her friend? But one could say that 'she' would be equally ambiguous there," Curzan says. "If you said 'I was talking to my mother and a friend of hers, and she said' – that's also ambiguous."

So what do you do? Rewrite the sentence, Curzan suggests.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is not yet consistently allowing the singular 'they,' Curzan says. 

"But the Baltimore Sun, where John McIntyre is one of the editors, has been allowing singular 'they' for about a year, and he says he hasn't been hearing any complaints. And I think he isn't hearing any complaints because that's what we say."

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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