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Grammar Alert: The case for the 'singular they'

There’s a debate among wordsmiths over something called the "singular they". That’s the gender-neutral pronoun, an alternative to the pronouns "he" and "she".

An example: A parent wants their child to succeed.

Copy editors and other grammarians cringe when they hear that. But last year, the American Dialect Society got behind the singular they. So did the Washington Post. And now, KUOW is adopting the singular they.

Making the Case

There are two main reasons we’re supporting the singular they. First, it reflects the way people talk. Which would you say out loud, “If a listener writes us, we write them back,” or, what’s considered proper grammar, “If a listener writes us, we write him or her back.” The latter is clumsy as spoken language.

The second, and more important reason: Singular they is the gender-neutral way to refer to people who don’t identify with he or she.

This comes up for us in covering LGTBQ issues.

Recently we produced a story about a couple who was chastised for showing affection in public outside Safeco Field. Mary McHale told us, "A Safeco Field employee came out and said, 'Ladies, I’m going to have to ask you to stop.'"

It was humiliating, said McHale, in part because neither McHale nor their partner go by female pronouns.

The Singular They Debate

The grammar rules students have learned over the past hundred years are clear: There are two singular pronouns, he and she. There is one plural pronoun: they. And the two shall not mix.

English literature historians say the singular they is legitimate. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and others used it. But in the Victorian era, grammarians eliminated the singular they as a way to tidy up the language.

Now, in the 21st Century, gender fluidity is a cultural phenomenon. Many public schools and universities support students in identifying as they instead of by binary pronouns.

The American Dialect Society declared the singular they word of the year in 2015, a recognition of its “emerging use” as a pronoun to refer to a person who rejects “the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

Major media outlets, including the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun have embraced it. Sun editor John McIntyre said in a video making the rounds on social media that resistance of the singular they is futile.

“The only people who care are school teachers and editors,” he said.

Are Gender Pronouns Dead?

KUOW will not stop using gender pronouns. If people self-identify as they, we will respect the choice and incorporate it into our stories. There may come a day when KUOW reporters ask interviewees how they want to be referred to in terms of gender: she, he or they.

Why you can trust KUOW