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Debbie Duncan: The Singular They

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Debbie Duncan says that in the swirl of changing pronouns, the singular they is here to stay.

I smiled recently after signing on to Zoom, and not only because I always look forward to my Saturday morning online qigong class, a product of Covid stay-at-home times that I hope is permanent. No, the screen read: “Host has joined. We’ve let them know you’re here.”

There it was: the new and to me, improved version of the pronoun “they”—singular, gender non-specific, and perfectly appropriate. As a reader and writer who pays attention to such things, I’ve watched as the default singular pronoun morphed over the decades from the supposedly neutral, though always masculine “he,” to a clunky “he or she,” which was followed by the even more awkward and rarely used written form “s/he.” When I listened a while ago to a nonfiction audiobook published in the 2010’s, I heard multiple mentions of “him or her,” “his or hers,” “her or his,” alternating “he’s” and “she’s,” etcetera. It was distracting. Use “they” already!

And people have been, in both written and spoken English. Here is a letter to the editor from a doctor, writing about mental health: “I always felt less anxious about the patient when I hospitalized them.”

And an op-ed recommending priorities for California’s next senator: “They should protect the needs of our struggling working families …”
In a story about the arts: “… the actor who gets the job by pretending to possess a skill they don’t.”


Pay attention, and you’ll notice it everywhere.

Young people were first to embrace the singular they. Its acceptability arrived at about the same time as stating a person’s preferred personal pronouns. Though that is a separate issue, still, you don’t have to consider gender or preferences when using they. It’s universal, and also works nicely with pets and other animals.

I know there are those who resist this change. My husband, for one. But I say, embrace it. As I read in a New Yorker article about the English language,“… griping about changes in grammar and usage don’t age well.”

The singular they is here to stay.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.


Debbie Duncan writes children’s books. She lives on the peninsula.

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