Singular They and the Pronoun Proposal

A letter sent to our esteemed colleagues in Macalester College’s Communications and Public Relations Office in 2015. Now I share it here, excerpted, for those interested.

The Pronoun Problem

Pronouns have vexed careful writers of English at least since the 1970s when feminist thinkers first had a go at dislodging the universal he/him/his. Later gender and sexuality rights movements have similarly put pressure on the question of the gendered English pronoun. But well before these cultural issues arose, writers of English wrestled with another pronoun matter, the vernacular tendency to slide between singular and plural. Thus even the much beloved English writer C.S. Lewis wrote this sentence: “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”

The Pronoun Proposal

The two of us, Addy Free (Assistant Registrar) and Theresa Krier (Professor of English, scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature), would like to offer a suggestion for the College Style Guide, on the matter of pronouns. Pronouns have become more urgent in the daily life of [Macalester College] as transgender visibility has increased. Students are even writing documents for distribution to faculty on this front; [the Communications and Public Relations Office] is already using preferred pronouns; we hope to provide language on ways to approach gender neutrality in language.

We suggest using they/them/theirs freely to indicate singular persons when gender neutrality is desired. “The student must meet with their advisor.” Reading this may feel awkward at first, but clarity is not sacrificed. In fact, this usage honors that vernacular inclination to glide between singular and plural.

The Pronoun Precedents

  • As early as 1977, the National Conference of Teachers of English proposed that their is preferable to his as a singular possessive pronoun.
  • The nineteenth century saw writers trying to coin alternatives for a [gender neutral pronoun].
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, and T.S. Eliot all used they for purposes of gender neutrality or syntactic clarity.
  • This usage has occurred in every century of English language usage.
  • Even the most recent edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage notes that the singular they is widely accepted and uncorrected by copy editors in publishing houses.

With this in mind, we hope you will accept our proposal to include in the College Style Guide use of they/them/theirs as gender neutral singular pronouns. If you have questions or thoughts that might benefit from a meeting, we’d be glad to meet with you.

Best,

Addy and Theresa

The college did officially adopt use of they/them/theirs as gender neutral singular pronouns

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