A Case for Exclusively-Singular Gender-Neutral Third-Person Pronouns

A Case for Exclusively-Singular Gender-Neutral Third-Person Pronouns June 5, 2021

Just browsed a puff-piece at The Atlantic about the history of gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, and I was wondering what brought that on, then remembered ’tis the season.

You would think that since I went to a Pride Festival* today, I would not have  forgotten quite so quickly what month it was.  But I had.  Probably because the local festival just had people at it.  Not overly memorable, since most of the places I go have people.

So, anyway, having been reminded, I thought maybe today was a good day to write my pronoun manifesto.  I talk to people all the time about my pronoun opinions (since suddenly everyone’s interested in a grammar topic that previously I think mostly only English teachers and overwrought editors cared about), but I don’t know if I’ve ever formally written out a position paper.  High time.

(1) English needs an exclusively-singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun.  The pronoun needs to function in all the same ways that “he” and “she” do, which is why the use of “one” or “it” doesn’t cut it — those words serve different, distinctive purposes.

This is necessary because it pains me terribly having to write everything in friggin’ plural when I am trying to talk about the common experience of everyone, generally, but no one person in particular.  As in: When a Catholic blesses  _ _ _ self with holy water upon entering a church, ? _e recalls the day of h _ _ baptism . . .”

Sure, yeah, make it plural.  When Catholics bless themselves . . . okay, whatever.  90% of the time, pluralizing works.  9% of the time you can use either second person (“when you bless yourself . . .”) or first person plural (“when we bless ourselves”), or even suffer through “he or she” and it’s not that bad.  And if you can do that, fabulous.  Or at least, good enough.

But guys, those of us who grew up believing in subject-verb agreement? I mean really believing? It hurts us when we have that one, horrible, stubborn, intractable sentence in our beast of a manuscript that desperately wants to be both third-person singular and a streamlined gender-neutral.

We need this addition to our language.  We need it.

(2) “Singular They” is of the debbil.  May it be darned to heck.

And listen, I get that people want a gender-neutral singular pronoun for their own personal reasons, including, most urgently, not wanting to raise the awkward question of whether Morgan, Maddok, McClintock, McKyle, and every other kid on the roster for next fall is a boy or a girl when calling up the parents to introduce yourself as the new homeroom teacher.

(Because the parents will be very put out if you get this wrong, even though most of them will admit to intentionally choosing a gender neutral name, and yet are any of them coughing up new and improved gender-neutral third person singular pronouns? No they are not. They are e-mailing you to ask why their child got points taken off for not answering the question with complete sentences.  Hello? My editor demands complete sentences.  Your child can learn how to do this. Or get a blog. On a blog, we’re allowed to use all the fragments we want.)

Anyway, I’m cool with that.  The Morgan Problem and whatever else inspires you are no doubt fine additional reasons for wanting a nice gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, though my reason is sufficient.

But guys, they is not singular. The AP style guide is wrong.  Probably they failed math, and that’s why they became writers.  It’s okay.  You don’t have to be good at counting to be a precious person of inestimable intrinsic worth . . . but your sudden use of a plural pronoun in the middle of a paragraph that only ever described one person?  It really sucks.  It sucks worse than my split infinitives, and way worse than my fragments.

I am uncertain whether it is worse than using adjectives as adverbs, except, of course, that if  use an adjective as an adverb, or if I might or might not have let a single instance of a singular-they into a certain beastly manuscript of mine, it is the exception that proves the rule.

[My abuse of punctuation and italics has nothing to do with this. Strictly a moral failing.]

Is this the world you want to live in? Where you give me excuses to commit crimes like that? No it is not.

What do we want? An exclusively-singular, gender-neutral, third-person pronoun! When do we want it? Six centuries ago!

(3) Yes, I am still a bit put out by the loss of “thou”, though obviously I’m mostly over it.

I’m not over whom, by the way. Not at all.  And we don’t even truly need whom, it’s just awesome and I love it.

And yes, I do still use thou sometimes, but mostly just in a technical capacity.

So you can STOP RIGHT NOW making fun of us people who hate singular-they by telling us we don’t care about thou.  We care. WE CARE.

(4) You do understand that the migration to a singular-they means that we will have to do as we did with the migration to a singular-you and invent new words to replace the lost distinction contained in the old words?

Oh, you’re fine with that?  Have you thought about this? Have you thought about a future where people say “they guys” (up north) and “th’all” (down south) and “theys” (Pennsylvania) to make up for this problem?

Because that’s what you are getting.

(5) See? This is why I am right.  You hadn’t thought this through.

(5.5) Southerners make fun of you when you use “y’all” incorrectly.  You should know that.  Some of us mock you pitilessly, and then we have to go to confession about it.  Just so you know. Before you get cavalier about “th’all.”

(6) Using “x” in things is overrated.  Unless I do it.  I am willing to consider possibilities, but only if the x makes a cool sound.

(7) I’m pretty open to what the pronoun is, but probably it should follow more or less the he/she, him/her, his/hers sound patterns, or we’ll never get it straight.  Inasmuch as there are patterns.  Lots of leeway there, but let’s not get too far out of the poet’s comfort zone.

–> I think  we should test it out on a team of call-center customer service representatives, because if they can get fluent and comfortable with it quickly (they do talk to people for a living), it’s probably English-y enough to work.

(8) I get that other people are committed to singular-they because they have very strong personal reasons for wanting a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and it pains them to see their earnest attempt to create such a thing  threatened.  Well, I have a very strong attachment to exclusively-plural-they, but as it happens, I desperately long for an exclusively-singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun.

Not for the same reasons, but for reasons that are important to me, even if no one else cares.

And since I think my reasons are valid and compelling, and furthermore my proposed solution would meet the stated need of the people currently using “they” in the singular (not counting me that one time, I’m talking about you people who do it shamelessly and don’t agonize over it after — and yes, I also agonize when I write who for stylistic reasons even though I know it should be whom), so to me it’s a win-win.  You stop singularizing a plural, and we both get a new pronoun that our language clearly needs.


So seriously.  I’m good with borrowing from the Finnish, or digging up some ancient proto-English pronoun that never did mean what we think it means, but hey, it sounds about right.  I am for, unequivocally, not the least bit kidding, for a proper third-person exclusively-singular gender-neutral program.  Please.  Please please.


Anyway, that’s my opinion.  It’s a grammatical opinion.


But really. Guys.  Exclusively-singular third-person gender-neutral pronoun. I need it. Need it.  Need. it.   Except not it.  Something better than it.

Not kidding.


*The reason I went was because I was walking by with my kids, on the way towards lunch, and we were kinda curious to see what was there.  So we saw what was there.  Just people.  As one usually finds, when one goes the places people go.

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