After singular they was declared word of the year for 2015, the word attracted unprecedented strong online reaction. Despite the split opinions seen and heard on and outside the Internet, my recent research in Australia found that the use of they as a singular pronoun is gaining approval as a ‘correct’ way to speak.
277 people across all different age groups were asked to provide their evaluation of ‘correct/ incorrect/ I don’t know’ over 5 sentences, condensed in the form of a listening task and a written task. Results show an interesting contrastive trend for spoken and written data. While most participants judged singular they as ‘Correct’ in spoken discourse, the opinion is divided among native speakers and non-native speakers when it comes to written sentences, as illustrated in Figure 1:
Figure 1: Assessment of Singular They by native and non-native speakers in written discourse
Such even split proportion across both groups of speakers is perhaps the evidence of a linguistics feature in transition, a point where a part of society is less resistant, and others are more so towards the change. In other words, singular they stays ‘below the radar’ but is still more or less noticeable.
Interestingly, almost 80% of participants recognised singular they (and its genitive form) as a preference to stay ‘politically correct’. When being asked to assess the supposedly correct form of pronoun in the sentence ‘Each student must write his ID number on the exam’, speakers’ discomfort with the ‘sexist implication’ in the word ‘his’ was prevalent and clearly expressed. Many respondents suggest ‘their’ as a ‘better way to say it’, or unless ‘it is a room full of boys’. The use of singular they then can be seen as speakers’ solution to the inherent lack of a singular, gender-neutral third person pronoun in English. The need becomes even more pronounced in wake of the ongoing social and global effort to advocate for gender inclusion and equality.
It is also quite interesting that the speakers’ uncertainty about Singular they (manifested in their answer ‘I don’t know’ ) is most observed within the middle pack of the Age groups (18-30 & 31-65), while being completely absent in the other two ends of the spectrum (Under 17 and 66 plus). How come? I am inclined to hypothesise that speakers who are within their socially active period (working, adult life) are more likely to be flexible in their judgement of what constitutes linguistically ‘standard’, possibly due to their ongoing, consistent exposure to various ways of speaking and writing.
As one of my participants neatly summarised, ‘Everyone does that [i.e. using they and its genitive form as singular pronouns], even though they don’t know they do.’ The use of singular they in particular, and the ‘standard form’ of English generally, then perhaps should be seen as a fluid, relative concept rather than a hard and fast set of rules that dictate language use. Many grammar prescriptivists may still disagree, but of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion.