If someone tells you singular ‘they’ is wrong, please do tell them to get stuffed

Jane Austen: a regular singular-"they" user
Jane Austen: a regular singular-“they” user

Allan Massie wrote a characteristically thoughtful piece about grammar yesterday, “Lost battles in the grammar wars“, talking about the need for careful use of language to avoid ambiguity. He refers to a somewhat wince-inducing infelicity in a Geoffrey Wheatcroft piece in The Guardian: “They have quite forgotten the redeeming virtues of the old aristocracy, from a sense of public duty to disdain for vulgar money-grabbing and realistic patriotism.” Was disdain for realistic patriotism really a virtue of the old aristocracy?

But more interesting, I think, is Allan’s very sensible attitude to changes in grammar. He’s not one of these tweedy pop-prescriptivists who think that splitting infinitives is a sin; likewise, he acknowledges that the use of “their” as a singular possessive is acceptable. But I want to pick him up on a minor point: he says it “is no longer only the plural possessive adjective”, but is “now acceptable, even if, strictly speaking, ungrammatical.”

Actually, “their” has commonly been used as a singular possessive for rather longer than either Allan or I have been alive. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first examples of “they” as a singular pronoun come from the 16th century – “Yf… a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yt. they omyt one verse or twayne” (1531, from The Pilgrimage of Perfection, by Wynkyn de Worde – thanks to Chook in the comments for clearing up what “Pilg. Perf., W. de W.” was). The first of use of “them” for “him or her” is a rather later 1742 (“Little did I think… to make a… complaint against a Person very dear to you,… but dont let them be so proud… as to make them not care how they affront everybody else”, from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded). “Themselves” goes all the way back to 1464 (“Inheritements, of which any of the seid persones… was seised by theym self, or joyntly with other”, from the Parliamentary rolls). And “their”, Allan’s particular dislike, was recorded at an unknown year in the 1300s (“Bath ware made sun and mon, Aiþer wit þer ouen light”, from Cursor Mundi).

What’s particularly interesting is that if you go to the Google Books “Ngram Viewer”, you can see that the phrase “everybody has their” was more common than “everybody has his” in books up until about 1850, and then they stayed roughly comparable until 1870 or so, whereupon “everybody has his” took a two-century lead. That’s not definitive, of course, since the pronoun might be referring to someone other than the “everybody”, but it seems instructive. “Each to his” has been more common than “each to their” since a brief spike for the latter in the 1750s, but both have been in relatively frequent use for all that time. There are examples of singular “they” in Louis Carroll, Jane Austen, the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Eliot and Walt Whitman. The backlash against it, it seems, is one of those things, like the war on split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions and using “hopefully” to modify a sentence, that aroused the ire of some self-appointed 18th-century grammar guardians who didn’t really know what they were talking about, and their ill-informed pettiness has poisoned the well for the rest of us.

So is is it “strictly speaking” ungrammatical? I honestly don’t know what “strictly speaking” means in that situation. It’s been less common, for most of the last few centuries, than the use of “him” as a genderless pronoun, but both have been widely used. And it’s not as if there’s some purely logical reason for “genderless him” over “singular they” – both go against the more usual usage, ie as a gendered pronoun or a plural one. The rules of grammar aren’t “strict” in that sense: they are defined by usage. One rule of grammar that has, apparently, been in constant use in Standard Written English is: “when the sex of the subject is unknown, it is permissible to use ‘they’ as a genderless singular pronoun”. So if someone tells you that singular “they” is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.

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