In Defense of the Plural They

Language is a product of humans; therefore, it is organic, varied, and flexible. Language also helps people cooperate to accomplish big tasks, communicate emotional truths, and resolve otherwise violent disputes. Too much flexibility undermines its power. Too great rigidity breaks us.

One “rule” that language purists insist upon is that pronouns should agree in number and gender with the nouns that they replace. The rule is not particularly difficult to apply in English, because, outside of proper names, our nouns are not gendered, so “it” or “they” generally suffice, like so:

The dog enjoyed a good belly rub; then it lay down for a nap.

The dogs raced around the house until they were exhausted.

Language begins bending when we use a generic noun and then have to refer back to it, like so:

A good scientist logs their field data daily.

For many of us, this sentence does not pose a problem. It’s clear, simple, and easy to read. Heck, it’s even in the active voice. But a language purist will object to the use of the plural (possessive) pronoun “their” to refer to the singular noun “scientist,” an objection that I will believe is not only reasonable, but difficult to overcome given the plural pronoun’s syntactical status.

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The noun “scientist” is singular, as we can verify by the use of the singular verb, “logs.” Substitute the plural verb “log” and you can easily hear the difference:

X  A good scientist log their field data daily.

One solution to the pronoun problem is to replace the plural “their” with its singular equivalents he and she. But that introduces a new problem. Which do we choose? In the context of our sentence, the word “scientist” is generic. We are not referring to a specific scientist, like Rachel Carson or Stephen Hawking. We are referring to scientists in general. So how do we choose between our two options, he or she?

In the past, the answer was clear. “He” was the pronoun of choice, but after the Civil Rights movement, women began to be recognized for their contributions to society and to be acknowledged in language that was more inclusive. In other words, we realized that not all scientists are boys.

Since that time, several other options have been proposed. Some writers tried alternating male and female pronouns throughout the text, a solution readers found disorienting. Others based their choice upon their own gender, a solution that alienated readers and writers alike. The least satisfactory of all options, the s/he, s/him debacle lingers as a virgulian nightmare disrupting the otherwise prosaic dreams of former editors from LA Weekly to The Village Voice.

Two solutions remain in common use. We can retain the singular and use a gendered phrase to refer to it, or we can pluralize all references in the sentence.

A good scientist logs his or her field data daily.

Good scientists log their field data daily.

The first example is correct grammatically and notionally (the thought and the language are in harmony), but it is clumsy. The second is clear, direct, and succinct. In it, the generic noun “scientist” becomes plural, losing the indefinite article “a.” The singular verb “logs” is changed to the plural “log.” And the plural pronoun is now grammatically correct. The second is the example that most technical editors would prefer.

Now comes the rub. Language is flexible, and English language users have been “bending” this particular grammatical construct for long enough that certain editors, most recently those for the Washington Post, are tempted to describe it as common usage rather than error.

So an editor following the guidance of these stalwart publications would not correct the original sentence:

A good scientist logs their field data daily.

But how would the same editor treat the following sentence?

They logs temperature, precipitation, and air pressure, along with other observations as relevant.

Obviously, the editor would correct the verb to the plural “log,” because no matter how common the (incorrect) usage might be, the pronoun “they” remains plural. So regardless of the editorial laxity currently so au courant, this technical editor is choosing to remain hopelessly old-fashioned, for the time being.

Comments

  1. I certainly have no problem with a linguistic transition to “they” in place of either “him” or “her.” I’ve often used it in my personal dialogue, which occasionally induces a curious look from people. This issue came up in an English class during my freshman year in high school; this was 1978. The teacher said there was discussion in some academic circles of using the letter “e” as a gender-neutral replacement. I don’t know if that went anywhere beyond the hypothetical stage, but I never saw its usage. I also prefer such terms as humanity or humankind, instead of “mankind” or “man.” None of this, of course, is political correctness run amok; it’s simply a matter of respect for a very large segment of society.

  2. Anna-Marie says:

    Singular they/their was common in English usage for centuries. It was used by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray. Regimenting its use as plural only seems to be a primarily twentieth century impulse, and one that we can leave behind us. There are ways to clarify your writing without misgendering your subject, and it is common decency to do so.

  3. Debra Bills says:

    It’s amazing how much time we spend on editing documents because of sentences like the one presented in the example here. I am inclined to drop the pronoun, so that the sentence reads “A good scientist will log field data daily.”

    Question – does that revision lack clarity?

  4. “Obviously, the editor would correct the verb to the plural “log,” because no matter how common the (incorrect) usage might be, the pronoun “they” remains plural.”

    I find fault in using this logic to make a case against common usage because the common use of “they” as a singular does not extend to all situations and sentences. I would expect that the editor would correct the verb to the plural “log,” because using “they logs” has not become common usage. However, the incorrect nature of that sentence does not present a reason why they shouldn’t deploy the correct use of common language and say the “scientist logs their” in a following thought.

    Note the “they” in my last sentence above. Or maybe you already have?

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