Here’s the historical grammar behind the singular they:
According to the APA, in the sentence The cake is for them., them can refer to one person. Merriam-Webster’s made the call a couple of years ago, and “they” can be singular. MLA? Not so much. The Modern Language Association is sticking to its guns on the whole singular/plural issue.
As an English teacher, I have a few choices.
- 1. Retain my militant stance and risk excluding a non-binary student.
- 2. Teach the historical grammar rule, explain the evolution of language, and let individual students decide for themselves where to fall.
- 3. Turn the issue into a teachable moment and have my students design a debate. As a class, we decide.
- 4. Discuss the issue with my department and come to consensus. Good luck on that one.
- 5. Choose a style manual and follow its rule (See what I did there? Not their rule. Its rule.) If your school uses MLA, perhaps the decision is made for you.
- 6. Teach students to code switch. In formal writing, stick with the historical rule. In casual spoken language, evolve.
- 7. Have students recast their sentences. I used to teach that a student had three choices. Be sexist by referring to everyone with a generic he.
Be grammatically incorrect by referring to a single person as they.
Be awkward with something goofy like s/he or he or she.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s an UGLY sentence: Every person in our country needs to be able to justify himself or herself by following a moral code.
Clumsy, right? Let’s try to tidy it up without changing the meaning. Attempt #1: Every American should follow a moral code. Attempt #2: Every American is justified by a personal moral code.
Don’t want to go against Warriner’s? Don’t want to offend? Just do some reconfiguring, and the issue is resolved.
So, what say you? Let’s hear it in the comments.