“They” as a Singular Pronoun in Literature

5969704980_63ef52f94a_zRecently, I critiqued a few chapters of a young adult fantasy novel. The chapters were interesting, however I stumbled along what I thought to be a pronoun error. It wasn’t until I talked with the author that I realized he meant to use the plural “they” as a singular pronoun.

In traditional grammar, “they” is plural, and only plural. But “they” is also used as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. The transgender community has used “they” for decades in an attempt to create non-gender biased language (the “he” or “she” pronouns).

I’ve since talked to many people about using “they” in the singular. Peoples’ reactions have been mixed, with most individuals being completely unaware of this movement (if you’re not part of the transgender community or don’t know someone who is, it’s not surprising you’d make the same mistake I did while critiquing this young man’s work).

Most people I talked to stated that it was fine to have a gender-neutral term, but that the transgender community should have come up with a new term. Using “they” is too confusing. People automatically assume that you’re talking about a group of people when you use “they” (or in the case of this young man’s story, I thought he was referring to conjoined twins – he wasn’t).

Multiple gender-neutral pronouns have been introduced throughout the years (“thon” and “ze” are a few). None have gained enough popularity to become part of everyday culture, which might explain why “they” is now being used.

However, in terms of writing, using “they” in the singular will make it more difficult to get published. In the editing world, you meet tons of people who are sticklers for traditional grammar. Also, since more people than not are unaware of “they” being using in as a non-gendered singular pronoun, it will appear that the author doesn’t know correct grammar.

“They” can still be used in the singular. But if it’s going to be done, then it must be made clear from the get-go what the author’s intentions are. Authors cannot expect readers to see what they intended. Unfortunately, people cannot read each other’s minds. If readers aren’t made aware of a plural pronoun being used in the singular, they will be confused and will likely not continuing reading.

What do you think?

(Photo courtesy of Paul Townsend.)

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