How it feels to write with the singular “they”

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theyThe American Dialect Society chose the singular “they” as its Word of the Year. Do you think using “they” to refer to one person is weird, informal, and wrong? Well, I’ve been doing it, so you can judge for yourself.

If you want  details on the debate on why “they” makes sense, see my post from earlier in the year. Suffice it to say that it eliminates the “he or she” that makes your writing lumpy.

The real question is, can you write this way without feeling self-conscious? There are uses of the singular “they” that will glide right paste the reader’s grammar detectors, while others seem to stand out and challenge people.

I’ve been trying it out, and it’s liberating. Like all new things, it’s sometimes uncomfortable, and other times, you feel as if you have thrown off a silly rule that was getting in the way of communicating clearly.

To give you a good sample, I went through the first draft of my upcoming book on writing. These are actual, unedited out-of-context sentences using the singular “they.” How do they feel to you?

Don’t disappoint the reader once they open the email. Tell them your objective and the action you want in the opening sentences.

Is this the outline of a good book? No one could possibly know. It’s like looking at the skeleton of a potential blind date and trying to figure out if you think they’re attractive.

If you show [a fat outline] to an editor or collaborator, they can critique the organization, but shouldn’t word-edit.

And if you work with an editor, they can see what you’re planning and have a meaningful conversation. An editor who approves a traditional outline has, frankly, no idea what they’re getting. The editor who reads your fat outline can tell you where you may be going wrong, and where they’ve got suggestions for research that can help.

Remember that these files will appear on someone else’s hard drive or folder. They will spot your content a lot easier if it’s not just called “marketing blog post” or “Chapter 5.” The version number allows you to communicate more easily about what they’re looking at. When they send it back, it should have the same name with “JB edits” tacked on, to indicate that JB has edited it.

Finally, get used to Skyping, which you can do from anywhere in the world when you both have a computer. You’ll want to see your editor’s face even if they’re in Singapore, to see if they’re actually upset or just being sarcastic.

Ask the writer what they think isn’t working. Keep an eye out for that as you read.

They [the writer] asked for your help for a reason – because you’re good with ideas, good with words, good on the topic, or just a good sounding board. Try to live up to what they’re seeking. If they want your technical expertise, don’t concentrate on word edits.

Finding pleasure in the misfortune of others – schadenfreude – is completely normal. It’s one of the joys of editing. Just try not to show it in front of the person you’re editing. You’ll both be happier and the results will be better (and they’ll learn more).

I will rewrite some of these, but I’ll keep most of them. There is no “he or she” anywhere in this book. And it’s better that way.

Learn to love the singular “they.” It’s here. You may as well get used to it.

22 responses to “How it feels to write with the singular “they”

  1. The point of writing is to convey thoughts, ideas, or feelings. If the reader is distracted by the words and they concentrate on the grammar rather than the concept you have lost them.
    Thus if you need to be a bit more informal to keep them interested use of they is appropriate.
    Note the use of “them” above.

  2. I hate misused theys. I spent several years early in my career in journalism as a copy editor, so perhaps the “they is not singular” was simply ingrained in me. But still. It grates like an “accommodate” with only one “m.”

    But beyond tonality or rules, there’s a deeper illogic at work here. Algebraically, the English language connects certain pronouns with gender. The singular pronoun of a human being — he or she — is by default also a definition of sexuality, because for centuries, sexuality was core to defining a person. We can’t talk about an individual without referencing his or her gonads. But today, society is moving past that. Actresses are now called actors, and when using words to take the place of a single human, we are missing a solution that does not bleed into sex. “He,” “she” are sexual. “It” is non-human. We have a missing word.

    The real solution would be to invent a singular pronoun not tied directly to sex yet connoting our human status. “Hume” perhaps?

    “Is this the outline of a good book? No one could possibly know. It’s like looking at the skeleton of a potential blind date and trying to figure out if you think hume’s attractive.”

    “If you show [a fat outline] to an editor or collaborator, hume can critique the organization, but shouldn’t word-edit.”

    Or a better choice would be “homo,” from homo sapiens meaning “wise person” in Latin. I’d give anything to see Fox News adopt homo as the default singular pronoun for our species. Perhaps then, we will have truly evolved beyond sex.

    1. Love this, Ben. If we’re using a singular “they” to make some people comfortable, it’s important to remember we’re making other uncomfortable, including me. It’s the politics of grammar, how timely! Just one of the many inclusive/exclusive political issues of our time…

    2. The whole point of using “they” in this way is that people are already using it. It’s a smaller change than inventing a new pronoun — which people aren’t using, and won’t use. English doesn’t evolve via fiat.

  3. My votes (as your coauthor who always pushed us to use “they” when it felt natural): Examples 1, 3, and 4 feel awkward. Garbage even. The others are fine to my ear. Why is that?

    On brief reflection, I think it has to do with proximity of the word “they” to the actor it refers to. If too close, then it feels odd. If farther away in the sentence, then it feels more natural.

    My two cents.

    1. I respect your perspective as I have respected your work all along, Ted. It was your original suggestion for The Mobile Mind Shift (which I, wrongly, rejected) that got me started down this path.

      I think you’re onto something with your analysis, but grammarians don’t make rules based on “if it’s farther away in the sentence, then it can be OK.”

      In my rewrite I will eliminate some of these and let others proudly fly. The tide is turning on this one.

  4. As a former English teacher, I sometimes shudder–then consider the bulky he/she alternative. As a feminist who wants my daughters to know they can pursue any dream, I am all for it. As a community member who interacts with gender-fluid individuals, I am glad for it.

  5. We use “they” in speech because we need a gender-neutral singular pronoun and there isn’t any other readily available or understandable. I wish we had an official one, but we don’t. So I’m for poor “they” doing both jobs.

  6. Singular “they” sounds fine to me on its own, but I find there is no good gender-neutral version of “himself”. Themselves is clearly plural, themself sounds wrong, him or herself is awkward, and oneself isn’t quite the same.

  7. I try really hard to avoid both the cumbersome “he/she” construction and the singular they. It’s just ingrained. Chances are I don’t always succeed. Some reworkings come to mind:

    Don’t disappoint the reader once they open the email. Tell them your objective and the action you want in the opening sentences.

    Alternative: Don’t disappoint readers when they open your email. Tell them your objective and the action you want in the opening sentences.

    And if you work with an editor, they can see what you’re planning and have a meaningful conversation. An editor who approves a traditional outline has, frankly, no idea what they’re getting. The editor who reads your fat outline can tell you where you may be going wrong, and where they’ve got suggestions for research that can help.

    Alternative: The editor you work with can see what you’re planning and have a meaningful conversation. An editor who approves a traditional outline has, frankly, no idea where it’s going. The editor who reads your fat outline can tell you where you may be going wrong, and give suggestions for research that can help.

    Finally, get used to Skyping, which you can do from anywhere in the world when you both have a computer. You’ll want to see your editor’s face even if they’re in Singapore, to see if they’re actually upset or just being sarcastic.

    Alternative: Finally, get used to Skyping, which you can do from anywhere in the world when you both have a computer. Even if you’re connected to your editor in Singapore, you’ll see one another and distinguish between being upset, or just being sarcastic.

  8. Have loved using the singular, gender-neutral “they” since discovering it as a sophomore in an introductory linguistics course in 1990.

  9. As an editor and English teacher, it might be expected of me to frown upon “they” becoming accepted for singular use, but I get it. I actually support it, too. Using he or she over and over makes writing sound too formal and stiff–especially in a fiction novel. It makes me think: Just speak to me like a real human being who uses slang and California-ified words all the time.

    Language evolves, and this is simply an evolution of language. It’s akin to not getting our feathers ruffled when people don’t use “whom,” even though it’s technically supposed to be used because of grammar rules. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve personally used “whom” in everyday conversation.

    Many people don’t like change, so I can see why they’re getting frustrated with this singular “they,” but I’ve learned that when it comes to language, being Type A can muddy the message and make the author sound like the worst of snobs.

    I say: viva la evolution of they!

  10. If the latest series of The Bridge is to be believed, Swedish police detectives use “hem” as a substitute for the Swedish equivalent of “he or she”.

  11. I was glad to see “they” can now be singular or plural. I have published 3 books and found it tiresome to have to say he or she or reword the sentence. Some authors would get around it by saying “one” (e.g. if one believes…), but no one really speaks that way. As you said, Josh, people already use “they” in the singular in conversation now. To me, it is no different than fish, deer, or other words for which the singular and the plural are the same. It solved a problem. In what other context must you repeatedly say “X or Y” to describe a single word?

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