Let’s review the singular third-person pronouns in English, kiddos!
Notice an odd one out? Well, in the 21st century, you shouldn’t. “They” is moving from a plural to an alternate singular third-person pronoun, used as gender-neutral.
On the last day of a comedy improv summer camp I attended years ago, all the kids were give “certificates” on the last day. As I walked out, I lamented the use of “We congratulate your child on their achievements here!” I had only just started to notice societies improper use of what is, officially, a plural pronoun.
Look around you. Really look. It’s everywhere.
I still occasionally try to fight it, but I think it’s high time that everyone accepted the fact: “They” has, in addition to being plural, also become a singular pronoun.
Why? Well, as I mentioned in “He/She/It Is A Boy – De-Gendered Language”, English doesn’t have a singular, third-person pronoun without gender that can’t be used inoffensively. That’s the important part right there – since most of have some weird pride in having a gender, we get pissed off if someone calls us “it”. We don’t have something like the Finnish “hän”, which can be used to mean “he”, “she”, and “someone that definitely has a gender, but it’s unknown”.
And since we want to be politically correct, but don’t want to have to keep using the cumbersome “he-slash-she”, we simply took the only other third-person pronoun we know, and it’s gradually gotten acknowledged as an acceptable singular.
But not officially. Nope, we still teach our kids that “they” is only plural. But I think it’s only a matter of time before textbooks start noting the change.
This morphing has been fought furiously – more intensely than a lot of language changes I’ve seen. Why is this? Y’know, I’m really not sure. But to everyone who just can’t stand this change, let me assure you:
We are not the first, and this is not the first change.
We all know old-fashioned English. We usually encounter it in obnoxious attempts to be fancy (usually used improperly), works set in ancient times (usually in locations/periods which make no freaking sense anyway), and stores titled “Ye Olde ___”. But it’s important to look at the pronouns in early English. Y’know “you”? Good old “you”? Well, “you” used to only be plural. (“Ye” could also be used for the second-person plural, but was all but replaced by “you” by 1600.) “Thou” was singular.
So, English is just undergoing another big pronoun change. It’s nothing to worry about. I don’t need to be captain obvious and say “language changes”, do I? Just as “you” drifted from plural to both plural and singular, so will “they”.
We’re also not the only language in which two identical pronouns are used for different things. As German students can tell you, “sie” means “she”, “they”, “you [plural] [formal]” and “you [singular] [formal]”. (Compared to German, we’re lucky in our pronoun specification.)
Hungarian has it, not in the pronoun itself, but in the conjugations. (This’ll be a little confusing, just be patient.) There are separate, lone, pronouns for “you [singular] [formal]” and “you [plural] [formal]”. However, they take the conjugations of third-person singular and plural, respectively. To clear things up a little: “Van” and “vannak” are (sort of – see my article “What Do Modern Slang And Hungarian Have In Common?”) the equivalents of “is” and “are”. “Vagy” and “vagytok” are “you [informal] are” and “you [informal] [plural] are”. To ask a close friend how they are, it’s “Hogy vagy?” But, to a superior, it’s “Hogy van?” which, technically, is actually asking “How is you?”
There are many more examples I could give, but I think you get the point: Not only is this not the only pronoun change English has undergone, we’re not the only language to have pronouns with double (or, in the case of German, quintuple) meanings. There’s no need to worry.
So, congratulations English! Give a warm welcome to “they”, you’re new third-person singular pronoun!