Excessive Use of 'They' as a Singular


I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that it’s okay to use “they” and “their” to refer to a singular person of unknown sex.

For example, “Every visitor should be sure they pick up their keys from the valet.” A lot of people say that’s wrong because “visitor” is singular but “they” and “their” are plural. But in fact, this isn’t quite wrong. And it’s getting less wrong every day. Dictionaries now indicate that “they” and its cousins have plural as well as singular definitions. Even if dictionaries didn’t allow this, common sense (aka idiom) would: You just can’t expect people to speak like: “Every visitor should be sure he or she picks up his or her keys from the valet nearest his or her parking space to assure he or she is not charged for overnight parking of his or her vehicle.”

That’s just not gonna happen.

Yes, you could assign a sex to the hypothetical person. But that can be distracting. Choose male and it seems a little sexist. Choose female and it seems a little odd. Obviously, if you’re talking about people in situations predominated by one sex or the other -- say, nail salon customers -- this is less weird. But collectively, English speakers have given some singular meaning to “they” and “their,” and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So on a recent day at work I must have sounded like I was possessed by the ghost of William Safire.

An article I was editing contained long, repeated, excessive uses of the singular “they.”

“When you buy a fine timepiece for that special someone, you want it to be something they will treasure forever: Every time they look at it, you want them to think of you. You want them to know that you kept them in mind as you shopped, that you remained keenly aware of their taste, their style, their preferences.

What’s wrong with that? Grammatically: nothing. Realistically: everything. It comes off as completely unprofessional if for no reason other than the fact that pros don’t write like that. Or at least their editors don’t let them get away with writing like that. The passage above is completely inconsistent with anything you’d read in a quality publication.

What do professional writers do instead? Anything and everything to avoid such excessive and unsightly use of singular “they” and “their.” The writers swap out the pronouns for nouns. They recast sentences to eliminate the need for a pronoun. They employ some passive voice. They slip in the occasional “he or she” or “him or her.” And occasionally they might even let a “they” stand. But they never just let a barrage of “theys” and “theirs” fly as they might in casual conversation.

“When you give (REWORDED TO ELIMINATE NEED FOR A PRONOUN) a fine watch, you want to choose a piece that your special someone (REPLACES PRONOUN WITH NOUN PHRASE “YOUR SPECIAL SOMEONE”) will treasure forever. Every time he or she (COORDINATE SUBJECT REPLACES “THEY”) looks at it, the timepiece should evoke (CLAUSE RECAST SO THAT “TIMEPIECE” BECOMES THE SUBJECT) fond memories of you, the giver. A carefully chosen watch says that your recipient’s (NOUN PHRASE “YOUR RECIPIENT” REPLACES PRONOUN) taste, (DELETED UNNECESSARY "THEIR") style, and uniqueness were forefront in your mind."

So, except in dialogue and other extremely colloquial forms of writing, there’s never an excuse to use “they,” “their” and “them” to the extent that the writer of the above passage did.




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