Singular ‘They’

Lots of theys

 

“Did someone leave their wallet in here?”

It’s not unusual to hear this sort of sentence in English.  The sex of the subject (‘someone’) is unknown, so the speaker uses the pronoun ‘they’, even though the subject is not plural.  Now, as a copyeditor (and otherwise general linguistic snob), I may be expected to rail against such usage, but alas – I am, in fact, about to do just the opposite.

The problem with this sort of construction is that English, like many languages, doesn’t have explicit fourth person* syntax, so any way we cast it becomes a sort of workaround.  And, when it comes down to it, singular ‘they’ is simply the least ambiguous and awkward of a lot of bad options.

* (“What the #&@$ is fourth person!?” a non-super-language-nerd might ask.  Well, I’m glad you did: a fourth-person entity is one that is unknown, generic, or irrelevant.)

Let’s take a moment to consider the alternatives.

  • The formally prescribed solution is to randomly choose a gendered third-person pronoun: “Did someone leave his wallet in here?”  The issue with this option, aside from the awkwardness of randomly assuming a gender, is that it creates a particularly strong pronoun-antecedent disagreement, so the initial impression is that you are asking if an unknown someone left an identified other person’s wallet in here.
  • The construction “Did someone leave his or her wallet in here?” is also a preferred one, but it is needlessly cumbersome.
  • ‘One’ is the closest thing English has to a real fourth-person pronoun.  So you could ask, “Did someone leave one’s wallet in here?”  But that sounds terribly stilted.
  • Similarly, ‘someone’ itself is, in essence, a fourth-person pronoun as well, but “Did someone leave someone’s wallet in here?” recreates the pronoun-antecedent divorce that makes it sound like you could be talking about two different people.
  • You could subvert the need for the second pronoun altogether by using passive voice: “Was someone’s wallet left in here?”  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that phrasing, but it changes the focus of the inquiry to the presence of the wallet itself rather than the owner you’re trying to reunite it with.
  • You could try a number of other rewordings, but each would have a slightly different meaning than what you’re intending, and they would only be applicable to the specific sentence.

So we’re left with ‘they’.  It’s hardly ideal, but it’s cleaner than the other choices, and it’s used so often informally that it now sounds the most natural, and its meaning in context is immediately clear.  Reusing plural terms for certain singular cases is not without precedent (we have only to look at the subjunctive form of “to be”), and ‘they’ is frequently used in other fourth-person constructions, anyway (“You know what they say.”).

Thus, while I’m not about to encourage anyone to start using singular ‘they’ in formal writing, I would advocate for a grammatical shift in that direction, if for no other reason than to be relieved of the constant need to convolute phrasing that avoiding it entails.  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.

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4 responses to “Singular ‘They’

  1. I tend to use either “she or he” or “he or she”. It’s not that many more keystrokes and I find that it helps me clarify whether I am speaking of a specific individual of undetermined sex or speaking of a “person” in the abstract. Since “they” can stand in for either, it can lead to ambiguity.

    To use your example, “Did someone leave her or his wallet in here?” implies specificity, a real wallet that exists somewhere and may have been left in the location.

    “Did someone leave their wallet in here?” on the other hand, seems to me to be more theoretical–has such an event been known to occur?

    I may be splitting hairs more finely than they need be split, but to me the distinction is a real one.

    • Hmm! You bring up an interesting point in general, but to my ear, “her or his” further abstracts, rather than substantiates, the wallet leaving by adding a layer of convolution that distracts from the notion.

      I don’t know that, at least in the context of this sentence, the distinction between theoretical and practical can realistically be made at the level of a genitive pronoun; you might have to exchange it for a demonstrative like ‘this’ to achieve that sort of clarification.

      In any case, I appreciate the added food for thought!

  2. I’m a big fan of using “they” in the singular. “He or she” just seems cumbersome to me, especially if you need to use it repeatedly.

    On a related note, I don’t remember what we settled on when describing a talking animal of unknown gender, but I wasn’t a big fan of “it” in that context, either…

    • Indeed, indeed.

      If I remember correctly, the issue we ran into was about a spider, where the point of contention was you weren’t sure what degree of anthropomorphism you wanted to attribute to it in context with the other animals.

      In general, my instinct in regard to unknown talking animals would be to just use the appropriate gendered pronoun, assuming the voice or appearance or smell would give the sex away to the POV character. Otherwise, I guess you face the same problem you do with human characters – if the sex isn’t obvious to the POV, you have to abstract the unknown character to a ‘figure’ or some such, to which ‘it’ feels more appropriate (or, back to the point at hand, risk using the natural but informal ‘they’. (>^-‘)> ).

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