This blog post was originally published on copyediting.com.
The singular they might just be 2015’s word of the year. As questions of transgender rights and gender equity continue making news, editors are feeling the need for a gender-neutral pronoun—and hotly debating solutions.
There are several ways to deal with this problem, from write-arounds to invented pronouns. Since it’s been in common use for several centuries now, though, the singular they is perhaps the most popular answer—despite outdated rules to the contrary. It’s especially common with indefinite pronouns, where the need for a gender-neutral solution often clashes with the need for subject-verb agreement.
Words like everyone and nobody are grammatically singular. We say Everyone loves Korean fried chicken, because everyone is singular. (Everyone love Korean fried chicken would only be grammatical as a command: Love it, now!)
Using pronouns complicates things. Everyone should take off his hat uses the singular correctly, but assumes that everyone who wears a hat is male. That’s why so many people use the singular they in such contexts:
Everyone should take off their hat.
Everyone knows what this means. It’s clear, simple, and intuitive to most native speakers. That’s why the singular they has gradually worked its way into greater and greater acceptance, even if it gives the sticklers a collective headache (at least in the US—it’s already standard in the UK, according to Garner’s).
Since I began writing about this topic, though, I’ve had lots of people ask me how subject-verb agreement works when the singular they is a personal pronoun. “When I’m using the singular they, do I have to use a singular verb? If I’m talking about Chris in a gender-neutral way, do I have to say they is happy? After all, I’d say Chris is happy.”
That’s true. But let’s break this down, shall we? Verb conjugations vary according to dialect, but here’s how it works in the standard written US English most of us copyedit:
In the plural column, it’s are all the way down.
In the singular column, though, we have am, is, and … are. We already have a singular pronoun that uses a “plural” verb: You are happy.
You does double duty, as lexicographer Anne Curzan points out: “We used it to make a singular/plural distinction between thou and you.” This distinction, as Davey Shlasko has noted, used to be about formal versus informal modes of address: people used the plural (you) to address the rich and powerful (think of the “royal we”). As feudalism died out, so did thee (accusative) and thou (nominative).
But, says Curzan:
Then thou died out over time, and you took on both the singular and plural functions. And it does so with the same verb: we still say “you are,” even in the singular. They has done exactly the same thing, which is to take on a singular function in addition to a plural function.
The answer, then, is the one you were probably reaching for all along. You don’t have to overthink things and force yourself to say They is happy. There’s no reason the most intuitive solution—They are happy—can’t sit happily in the singular column alongside You are happy.
Sarah Grey has been a full-time freelance writer and editor since 2011. She specializes in nonfiction in the humanities and in social movements, and writes and speaks frequently about inclusive language and other social-justice issues in editing. She is also an activist, a parent, and the force behind Friday Night Meatballs. She lives in Fishtown, Philadelphia.