It has become a hot button problem in some circles: the use of “they” (along with “their”, “their” and “them”) when referring to an individual. People who are not binary, gender, or anywhere else in the gender spectrum have had this pronoun with increasing regularity for the past decade. Unless you are a linguist, dictionary author, or historian, you probably think that the use of the singular “she” is a recent development.

That is far from it.

Old School Pronouns

Linguistic historians trace the use of a singular “you” into the late 14th century. If the subject of a sentence is both unspecific and quantifiable, “she” in the singular was always appropriate. Some examples:

  • If a professor catches you cheating they will surely give you a failed grade.
  • I called for a plumber. they should be here in an hour.
  • Marvel just hired a director for their next film. I hope they are ingenious!

Jane Austen and William Shakespeare used this form of the singular “she” among towering literary figures. You have probably used it many times in your life. Or this year. Or today.

But then grammarians stepped in and pushed patriarchy into another place it didn’t belong: language. In the 1500s, William Lily published a Latin textbook in which he stated, “The masculine gender is worth more than the feminine, and the feminine is worth more than the neutral one.” Compared to other languages, English is relatively genderless, but the hierarchy has been introduced. The rule was translated from Latin into English, and “he” was considered acceptable when referring to a person of unknown gender. “He” has even been legally declared as inclusive of all genders in England and the United States.

Bonus for patriarchy: “He” only needed to be viewed as inclusive for all genders until it was impractical. It was all too easy to tell women that “he” really only meant men, as the patriarchy saw fit. It was not until the second wave of feminism in the 1960s that “he” saw widespread rejection as an integrative pronoun.

Where is our singular genderless pronoun?

To really understand the whole problem here, we need to look at the pronouns that are currently available to English speakers as they stand today.

Subject pronoun Object pronouns Possessive adjective Possessive pronouns
First I Me My Mine
Second they they Your Yours
Third (female) they your your Yours
Third (male) He Him His His
third It It It is – –
First plural We Us Our Our
Second plural they they Your Yours
Third plural they they your Your

For brevity, I haven’t included the reflexive pronouns, but you got the idea.

Both the connotation and the term “it” is not something we associate or want to associate with any person, so we have no real way of referring to an individual without referring to gender. English speakers have not only selected “she” for a new use, but have developed new pronouns in the past to fill the gap.

“Some, like ‘hesh’ and ‘hiser’, both 19th century, were combinations of the existing pronouns,” wrote Cody Cottier for Discover Magazine. “Then there was ‘thon’, a contraction of ‘that’ that could have been the closest thing to general recognition.”

There are a number of neopronomers these days that are well used by gender and non-binary individuals. Xe and Ze are the most commonly used, but there are a number of others depending on each person’s personal comfort and identification.

The insidious power of prescriptivism

So if it comes down to the history and pedantic rules of English grammar, why is there so much vocal, emotional kickback from using “them” as singular pronouns when referring to non-binary and gender-specific people? While some of this is fueled by old-fashioned bigotry (and the subject for many other articles), prescriptivism is the biggest driver of this department.

Some of you may remember 2015 when Merriam Webster added (paraphrased) “figurative” as a slang definition for “literal”. People went mad and raged against the ancient dictionary for changing the definition of the word. Except Merriam Webster hasn’t changed the definition. English speakers have done that. Merriam Webster, Cambridge, Oxford and any other dictionary manufacturer are not prescribers. You don’t decide what words mean. They watch how people use the words and then update their dictionaries accordingly.

It’s like people demanding that “wen” still be used correctly, even though other morphemes like “whon” have long since died out.

It’s also like anyone trying to demolish African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as “inappropriate” or “wrong” instead of realizing that this is likely the next step in the language of English. The history of the English language is a history of the reduction of morphemes, and AAVE is just that. And any argument against AAVE is likely deeply rooted in racism.

These views are prescriptive and try to tell others how to use English because they believe in some kind of right and wrong demarcation about the language. But the language is alive. It has changed dramatically from its Franco-Germanic roots through Old English and Middle English to what we have now. That is not even to mention the myriad dialects and Creoles that are spoken around the world.

The next time someone has a seizure, using “them” to refer to an individual, send it to me. Or point them at one of those linguists or these or these and get some popcorn. At least tell them that defending a prescriptive definition of a word really isn’t a hill they want to keep dying.