Singular 'they' has been around for centuries

When people resist changes to the language, I get it. Who wants to be told that the rules they learned in school — stuff they believed, like “healthy” can’t mean “healthful” — are obsolete, or worse, fictional? That the sweat equity they once invested in being right now renders them wrong? They wasted their time, bet on the wrong horse. Who wouldn’t push back?

This, in a nutshell, is why I haven’t written much about the Associated Press Stylebook’s 2017 announcement that it would begin allowing singular “they,” as in “They should move their car” instead of “He or she should move his or her car.”

People who don’t like this change argue that “they” is plural and, because just one singular person can move that car, you need the singular “he” or “she” instead. Anyone who has bothered to learn about pronouns could rightly be annoyed by AP’s new guidance — so annoyed that they might want to shoot the messenger who comes bearing that news: me. Hence my sub-courageous silence.

But there’s something people hate even more than changes to the language: changes to the language they believe are imposed on them by people with an agenda. I was reminded of this recently by a New York Times column on singular “they” by linguist John McWhorter.

So now, after several years of cowering and staying mum on advancements of singular “they,” I can finally be the bearer of good news: Singular “they” is not an artificial language change pushed by people who want to tell you how to talk. Instead, singular “they” has been evolving naturally for centuries.

Here’s my recent column explaining how this word has been evolving for centuries.

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