Okay, we’re going to do something really different today from what I usually do, because I think it is an important piece of history that nobody really knows. But it’s not the history of a person or a place or an event….it’s the history of a word.
We’re talking about the history of the singular pronouns they(/them/their).
Now, another thing that I’m going to do that is different today is I’m going to give you a source for all of the information I’m about to impart. I don’t usually do that because this is a hobby, not a college dissertation. I really don’t want it to feel like work, y’know? Yes, that makes all of this amateur, and I’m generally okay with that. But you know who’s not amateur? The Oxford English Dictionary. So, if you think you know the English language better than the Oxford English Dictionary, please feel free to argue. With them. (I am also dipping into the Merriam-Webster dictionary and some literary analyses.)
Anyways, let’s talk history. The first time the singular “they” appears in written language was in 1375 in the story William and the Wolf, the English translation of the French Guillaume de Palerme. Now, I’ll grant you, we know next to nothing about the person who translated it and there’s no dictionaries at this point in history, let alone standardized spelling. Technically, we’re still speaking Middle English and not Modern English for another 95 years. In fact, in 1375 we were still using some words that haven’t been in common usage for centuries, like “thou.”
Right. “Thou” the singular form of “you” because “you” was a plural pronoun. But in the mid-17th century we changed it so that “you” could mean any number of people — one, two, a dozen, any number. We’ve been happily using context clues to figure out the number of people “you” was referring to for like the past 400 years. At which time, for the record, we were very much using modern English.
But I digress and now I’ve skipped ahead — past an awful lot of very respectable examples. Geoffrey Chaucer used it in “The Pardoner’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales. Singular “they” is even in the King James Version of the Bible — check Philippians 2:3. And I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the writings of the Bard, William Shakespeare himself. He used singular “they” kind of a lot, actually. He would even use the singular “they” when the gender of the subject is known. For one example, in Hamlet, he wrote:
“‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3
Since nature makes them partial—should o’erhear”
Now I think most of us would agree that Shakespeare had a good handle on the English language but it’s certainly true he made up hundreds of words (like “amazement”), and in his time — even though we were using (early) modern English — we still didn’t really have things like dictionaries or standardized spelling. So, okay, maybe Shakespeare isn’t the best judge on what’s correct.
So we’ll skip ahead to 1755 when A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was published, giving us standardized spelling and moving us firmly into Modern English. (Until the Oxford English Dictionary came about in 1857, Johnson’s dictionary was basically the final word on the English language.) Johnson’s dictionary is actually online and while it does define “they” as plural, interestingly enough it provides in its definition an example of its use as a singular pronoun (from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, no less!)
Must now confess, if they have any goodness
The trial just and noble.”
This is why we needed an OED to step up and clarify things, you know?
But what is really clear is that the singular “they” remained in common use, even among the most noted authors of the English language. Jane Austen uses the singular “they” 109 times across her various works. As did numerous other authors — just for a handful examples, you can find it used in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Lord Byron‘s Werner, or The Inheritance: A Tragedy (1822) Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1839), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880), Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974). There’s an even longer list of examples, which includes excerpts, over at UPenn’s Language Log if you’re interested.
So with all of this, why did it become commonplace for us to say that “they” is plural if that’s never been true in practice? Well, to be quite frank, because of sexism. 1795 is the first time that anyone begins arguing that pronouns for people needed to be “sex definite” and of course, that meant if you didn’t know the sex you should be using “he” as that was the superior sex. I’m not kidding or exaggerating here, the entire basis for the argument hinged on grammar rules written by William Lily as he was teaching Latin students in 1567. The rule?
“The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.”
Aside from that seeming pretty ridiculous even in Latin, this rule is about word classification and not actual people’s genders. But in 1795, some “grammar experts” decided it should apply to English pronouns for people.
That idea didn’t last long without being challenged. It was being pointed out pretty quickly that always using “he” was erasing women from roles they often filled. Samuel Coleridge was arguing for using “it” instead as early as 1808. “It” of course is fairly dehumanizing, as that’s a pronoun typically used for objects, and that was being said pretty much immediately after Coleridge made his suggestion. That landed us with “he or she,” which has also been pretty universally decried as sounding clunky and awkward. And so the academics and grammarians have argued on and on for more than 200 years. Pretty much the entire time this discussion has been going on, people have been trying to create new gender neutral pronouns as well — “ou” being the first, appearing in the 1790s, with “ze” and “zir” being much more recent attempts. It’s an admirable idea, but none have caught on yet. Meanwhile even the most celebrated of authors continued using the singular “they” so you kind of have to wonder why this has been argued so long. The OED had realized this was kind of a pointless discussion by at least 1998, when they officially included a singular definition of “they” in that year’s New Oxford Dictionary of English.
The point is, it’s not new to use singular “they.” The idea of “they” being a singular pronoun predates any argument that it can’t be singular by centuries. And the most celebrated and respected users of the English language have continuously ignored that argument. The only thing that’s “new” is that we have so many people who don’t feel like they fit into the gender binary but do feel supported enough and free enough to tell us that. That’s a really great change, and even though that is something that probably is worth changing our language over….we don’t even need to.