Like the law, language is a construct of society. It evolves, ebbs, and flows with what We The People think to be the best and most appropriate way to communicate.
Recently, we’re seeing watershed moments in the centuries-long adoption of the use of the pronoun “they” in the singular form. Not only is it being recognized as something commonplace – it is also being recognized as an appropriate term to keep language from being used as a way to exclude others.
The Singular “They”
We’re talking about personal pronouns, here – vague words that refer backwards to someone or something that was mentioned earlier. To wit:
At Myers Freelance, we help law firms promote their websites online. It is kind of our specialty.
The correct pronoun to use depends on two factors:
- If there’s more than one of whatever you’re referring to, and
- If you’re referring to yourself, the audience, or some vague third party.
Traditionally, the result has been:
|He / She / It
The problem is there, in the bottom left entry of the table. If you’re referring to a vague third party in the singular, you have two options. You can either:
- Assign a gender to what you’re talking about, or
- Refer to it as an “it”.
Referring to a person as an “it” is offensive, demeaning, and dehumanizing. It, quite literally, refers to a person as an object. Assigning a gender, though, can be risky and offensive (if you don’t know the person’s gender, assign one, and miss), pointless (if the gender is irrelevant to what you’re saying), and exclusive (human beings who are not comfortable being referred to as “he” or “she” have no other option).
So people have long used the third-person plural pronoun, “they,” in the singular context. For almost as long as it has been used, there have been other people who insist that it’s wrong.
Now, dictionaries are recognizing its use in the singular context.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary Names “They” as the 2019 Word of the Year
Dictionaries are to language what Restatements are to the law. They aim to reflect the state of the world at the time of publication.
So when the Merriam-Webster Dictionary named “they” as their word of the year for 2019, it was a watershed moment in its use as a singular pronoun.
The dictionary was not the only source of grammatical rulemaking to recognize the movement towards using “they” in the singular, though. The American Psychological Association endorsed “they” as a singular third-person pronoun in its 7th edition of its Publication Manual, effective in late 2019.
We’ve Used “They” as a Gender-Less “He” or “She” for Centuries
These recent stamps of approval are only the latest developments in a long feud over whether “they” should be strictly relegated to the world of the plural.
Believe it or not, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “they” has been used to refer to singular third parties since 1375. That was when it first appeared in writing in a medieval romance poem, meaning “they” was likely used as a humanized “it” in verbal speech even earlier.
In the 18th century, though, the singular “they” fell out of favor as grammar sticklers insisted that it was only for plurals. While there were detractors, like famous authors Jane Austen and W.H. Auden, who continued to use “they” in the singular through the 19th and 20th centuries, they were the exception, not the rule.
We’ve Actually Seen Pronoun Shifts Before: From “Thee” and “Thou” to “You”
As we mentioned at the beginning, language shifts just like the law does. What was once commonplace and accepted can shift over the course of time (Plessy v. Ferguson).
Strangely enough, the expansion of “they” into the singular is not even the first time we’ve seen a shift in a pronoun’s meaning.
In the 1600s, “you” was plural and, occasionally, a very formal second person singular pronoun. If you weren’t trying to flatter someone who was present or express their superiority, you used the personal or informal forms of “thee,” “thou,” or “thy” in the 1600s (like Hamlet’s good friend but commoner, Horatio, who calls Prince Hamlet the formal “you” throughout Hamlet, and then “thy” after Hamlet passes away). This distinction between “personal” and “formal” versions of the singular “you” still exists in lots of languages, like Spanish (the American protagonist struggles with this in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls).
Over time, though, “you” replaced these other “thee”s and “thine”s and took over the second person singular pronoun. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, there were detractors then, too. In 1660, an entire book was written about what why using “you” in the singular was wrong and made the speaker look idiotic.
As we now know, history favored “you” in the singular. Now, using “thee” and “thy” is a way to get institutionalized. Not only have we seen a pronoun morph over time – we’ve already seen a plural expand into a singular realm.
There’s Also the Whole Inclusion Concept
While the singular use of “they” has always been an undercurrent in the English language – technically “wrong” but understood by everyone and even used by critics when they weren’t thinking – recent attention to systemic injustices and tools of exclusion have brought the “he/she/it” choice into the limelight. That choice excluded nonbinary folks by forcing them into a gender or becoming an object, linguistically. Overcoming this arbitrary and silly linguistic structure has propelled the rise of the singular use of “they.”
So What Does This Mean for Your Legal Blog?
Now that Merriam-Webster officially recognizes and publicly endorses the use of “they” as a common gender-neutral pronoun, law firms have more support to use the word in their legal blogs. Critics who insist that “they” is plural can be rebutted with the dictionary and the fact that it recognizes it as a proper construct.
Simply put, you can now use “they” in the singular to keep your legal blog from subconsciously excluding people, and can now use the dictionary as cover for when critics argue it’s not correct or is somehow being used politically.
As for us, we’ve been using “they” as a replacement for “he or she” for years, now. For clients who pay by the word, it just seems like the right thing to do.