The future of singular they

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I've recently encountered several people in their teens or early twenties who ask, as individuals, to be referred to as  they/them/their/themself. Looking around to see how common this might be, I found an undated (?) survey reporting the following results:

All in all, over eight hundred people responded, the majority from the US and other English-dominant countries. A few were binary- or cisgendered individuals who left hostile comments (i.e., stating that there was no such thing as gender outside the binary) or answers that indicated confusion as to the purpose of the survey (i.e., identifying themselves as binary-/cisgendered and remarking that they would always accommodate the pronouns requested by another person). Others, despite describing their gender only as one of the binary genders without further comment, also indicated nontraditional pronoun preferences.  [...]

“They” was the most preferred pronoun-set for 62.39% of respondents; the second and third were “he” and “she” at 31.39% and 29.73% respectively. (These numbers are not contradictory; about 48% of respondents indicated preference for multiple pronoun-sets).

There are some other indications here and there of movement in the direction of they. People who for one reason or another are unhappy with gendered third-person pronouns have plenty of other options, but none of them seem to be gaining much momentum.

Although singular they is much more natural for English-speakers than ne or ve or ze or ey or xe, it's still not easy to get used to. Despite some experience, I still often misunderstand such references. And I find it hard to remember to use the right pronoun, even if, as one sympathetic young person put it, "They'll be insulted if you call them 'her'".

Could this catch on in general usage, in the way that the merger of thou/you into you did a few hundred years ago? It doesn't seem very likely; but attitudes towards gender and gender roles have changed a lot over the last century, so who knows?

Meanwhile, I'm surprised that there's not yet a band named Singular They.

Update — to clarify something that I failed to prevent several commenters from mistaking — I'm NOT talking about the use of singular they to refer to quantified or indefinite people, as discussed in many earlier LL posts. Rather, the topic is cases where forms of they are used in reference to a specific, definite, known person, as in "Kim helped themself to another piece of cake", or "Sandy said they [meaning Sandy] left their cell phone on the table". Or an exchange like this one: "A: Is Mary coming to dinner? B: No, they texted me to say that they're not feeling well."

We've cited one earlier example of this phenomenon:

Dr Gerald Black has applied for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance. I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on their suitability for this post.

But in that example, the pronoun was a decent distance from its antecedent, and might have arisen due to recycling a generic letter template.

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86 Comments »

  1. Stan Carey said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    I recently rediscovered a rare complaint about singular you on metaphysical grounds (quoted in James's Varieties of Religious Experience). It gave me an excuse to argue for singular they, and I made the point that he or she and similar oft-cited alternatives perpetuate a false idea of gender as a binary set; this shortcoming hasn't received much attention in mainstream discussion, at least that I've read, so I'm glad to see it highlighted here.

    [(myl) George Fox felt the same way:

    For plural and singular was the language of God, and Christ, and all good men, and of the prophets and apostles; but the confused world, that lies in confusion, cannot endure it, who live not in the fear of God, neither follow the example of good men, but are in the double tongue, quenching the spirit, and hating the light of Christ Jesus, which is single. And so all Friends, train up your children in the same singular and plural language ; all masters, mistresses, and dames, or whatsoever ye are called, that do take Friends' children, that are in the singular and plural language, it is not fit for you to bring them out of it, neither to force nor command them otherwise, to please your customers, nor to please men; for if they should pay two or three for one, that would displease you, who would have them to speak two or three, when they should speak singular, thee and thou to one.

    And so on, at great length. e.g.

    ...for there must be, and always was a distinction betwixt one and many. For if in your practice ye should not do it, but let one have many things, when he should have but one thing, ye would think to suffer wrong, and your servants to do that which were not righteous; and so, do not they speak that which is not righteous, when they say many for one, and nonsense and confusion?

    Sometimes it almost seems as though the whole Society of Friends thing was just a big fit of pronominal peeving.]

  2. Lynne Skysong said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 11:45 am

    Singular They sounds like a one person band. It makes me think they would be the JoCo of linguistics.

  3. Jo said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    Mark, you have to look on myspace to find the band. That's where the cool kids still hang out!

    [(myl) Maybe "still hang out" is going too far -- the MySpace page tells us that
    Last Login: 10/30/2009
    and there's a film of dust over everything. But still, it's good to know that there once was a band called "The Singular They", even if its members have now moved on.]

  4. Andy Averill said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    I'm going to nominate "cisgendered" for WOTY.

    As for singular they, I've been using it for — decades? I think it's here to stay. Especially since you can find historical examples going way back.

  5. Robert Coren said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

    @Andy Averill: Have you been using it to refer to specific persons? It's one thing to use it as a generic ("Everyone brought their own lunch"), which only attracts the notice of dedicated peevers these days, and to use it for a specific individual ("John brought their lunch with them"), which strikes me ear as odd (and I'm probably not the only one), plus introduces possible ambiguities (not that ambiguity is a deal-breaker in these matters).

  6. Zizoz said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    I use "they" to refer to people on the internet whose gender I don't know. It mostly feels weird if I think I *should* know their gender.

  7. L33tminion said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    Stan: That's certainly a disadvantage of "he or she", but I think a more obvious disadvantage is that "he or she" (or "she or he") prioritizes one gender over the other. "They" does a better job of actually being gender-neutral.

    Mark: The only thing that surprises me about this post is that you think singular "they" becoming common usage is unlikely. Both observations about present usage and arguments about why that usage would be favorable and easy to adopt make me think that outcome is extremely likely. It's harder to make predictions about timing, but I wouldn't be surprised if all major style guides favored "they" over "he or she" within a few decades, and I'd be surprised if they didn't a century from now.

    [(myl) Sorry, I wasn't clear enough. I was wondering whether the words he/him/his/himself and she/her/her/herself would become as archaic as thou/thee/thy/thine/thyself, replaced in all cases by they/them/their/theirs/themself. So we'd have things like

    Kim helped themself to another slice of cake.

    or

    Sandy said that they [i.e. Sandy] left their cell phone on the kitchen counter.

    ]

  8. Jonathon Owen said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    A surprising little piece of data that I came across recently is this poll on the Chicago Style Q&A website. A majority of respondents said that singular "they" should be accepted. We can't assume that all the respondents were editors, but it's probably safe to assume that many were and that many others care about style and usage.

  9. V said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

    I am agendered and prefer they/them/their/themself.

  10. Dw said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    I have noticed people using "oneself" and "one's" in a (to me) ungrammatical way in order to avoid gender. A typical usage would be:

    Every person should take care of oneself.

  11. glitch said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

    I think that singular "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun referring to a specific (typically non-binary) person is more likely to catch on than most proposed gender-neutral pronouns, simply because singular "they", albeit with a more limited usage, is already established in the language. It seems easier to extend the usage of an already-present pronoun than to invent a new one. I really hope it catches on, because I can certainly understand how someone might not feel comfortable with either "he" or "she" (and "it", of course, is really dehumanizing).

    I know several people who prefer to be referred to as "they". It takes a little getting used to, but it's not all that tough, and it's important to refer to people the way they want to be referred to.

  12. Steve said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    @Robert Coran: I agree.

    Also, and on a related note, ISTM that there is a significant difference between preferring to use singular they (especially in place of something clunky like "s/he" or "he or she") in one's own speech, and preferring to be referred to as a singular "they" by others, to the point of being offended if one is referred to as either a he or a she or one's possessions are said to be his or hers.

  13. Dan Hemmens said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

    I have noticed people using "oneself" and "one's" in a (to me) ungrammatical way in order to avoid gender. A typical usage would be:

    Every person should take care of oneself.

    Weirdly in the example you cite "one" isn't being used to avoid gender, it's being used to avoid Singular They. After all "Every person should take care of themselves" is perfectly acceptable.

  14. Julia said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    To state the obvious, "they" as a gender-neutral singular is becoming increasingly predominant when the gender is unknown, which makes total sense to me as a less cumbersome alternative to "he or she" (or worst of all, "s/he", which always trips me up when reading because I have to stop and wonder how in the world one would pronounce that). But individuals, with a known gender, asking to be referred to as "they"? That I don't get at all. I suppose these would be people who like to try to pretend that gender doesn't exist, which seems flaky to me.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    Up to a point, there is something to be said for calling people what they want to be called when speaking to them directly, just as a matter of politeness (although that was not necessarily the view of the 17th-century Quakers when it came to second-person pronouns). Subject to further reflection, I don't seem to have the same intuition in terms of which pronouns to deploy when referring to people (or other entities, for that matter) in the third person. My access to the "survey" link is blocked, so it's not clear to me who was surveyed, if they were self-selected, or what if any larger group they are to be taken as representative of.

  16. glitch said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    @Julia: Those individuals with a "known gender" who are asking to be referred to as "they" typically do not consider themselves either male or female. This is not usually, for example, a man who thinks that gender isn't real or something and wants to prove a point. It's not an ideological thing. These are people who feel that neither "he" nor "she" feels appropriate for themselves because they do not fall into the category of "women" or "men". This falls under the umbrella of transgender identities (which also, however, contains "binary" individuals such as transsexual women and men, who generally prefer to be referred to by "she" or "he" respectively).

    [(myl) In the case of at least one of the people known to me who prefers to be referred to as they, they have a clear gender identity, but just don't like the idea that this identity has to be referenced whenever anyone refers to them.]

  17. Brian T said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    This post changed my view of pronouns. Now it seems odd that we don't have a handy pronoun to refer to "any person, with no regard to gender," and it seems odd that we can't ever refer to a person without reminding everybody "Hey, I know which gender that person is!"

    Gender is an obvious way to classify people, but it's not always germane. Who needs to be classifying people by gender every single time anyway? "Now, eyewitness to the riot, did you see any of these people in this lineup? Point to the ones who were there." "Yes. Buxom was there, and dangly was there. I don't remember seeing dangly or dangly or buxom, but dangly was definitely there, with buxom and buxom."

    I wish there were an easy way to promulgate a new pronoun that would have the genderlessness of "they" but the singularity of "he" and "she." (I would nominate "se.") Seems a shame to build in the ambiguity of "Did you mean one they or multiple they" on the way to "I'm going to refer to a person without running that background program that constantly keeps me aware of sex."

  18. Mark Reed said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

    Brian T: it's an old, old issue. Many languages do have epicene pronouns, and many proposals have been made (and adopted by some subcultures) in English (some of them linked to in Mark's post). Probably "ze" and "hir" (sounds like "here", not "her") have more adoption than any of the others, but singular-and-specific "they" seems likely to overtake them all. Douglas Hofstadter famously satirized the arbitrariness of gendered pronouns in his "Person-Paper on Purity in Language", written from the point of view of an alternate reality in which pronoun choice was based on race instead of gender.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

    Brian T, we do have two pronouns that have the genderlessness of "they" and the singularness of "he" and "she". The problem is their limited scope.

    One is "it". I think the issues with that are obvious.

    The other is traditional singular they. With traditional singular they, the singularness is clear enough from context. The problems come in when we expand usage of singular they beyond it's traditional usage, which is what this post is about.

    (I prefer "singularness" simply because "singularity" makes me think of the physics term.)

  20. Matt McIrvin said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

    "Singular They" specifically sounds like the stage name of a They Might Be Giants tribute artist. Maybe they would dress like a half-Flansburgh/half-Linnell creature.

  21. D.O. said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

    I'm glad that in a search for gender-neutral-appropriate language we are still trying to keep a pronoun that distinguishes between persons and non-persons. Otherwise it would fit the bill… Hey, wait a minute, they can refer to inanimate objects too. Is everythey sure we actually need more than one personal pronoun?

  22. Faldone said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

    Is everythey sure we actually need more than one personal pronoun?

    Oh, great. Now we're all going to get confused about when to say "everythey" and when to say "everythem".

  23. Mr Punch said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

    Seems to me that there's a parallel to "Ms". That's widely used when the marital status of a woman is unknown; but there are also women who prefer that title for themselves, though they may in fact know whether they're married or not, and be candid about it in conversation. The singular they is one step beyond.

  24. cs said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

    If we need to clear up the ambiguity, maybe we could refer to more than one person as theyall.

  25. Aaron Toivo said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

    Just imagine how cringeworthy it would be if news articles routinely mentioned the race of politicians in contexts it is not relevant to. "Budget negotiations were again stalled by a series of proposed amendments by Sen. John Johnson (R-MA), who is African-American, and Sen. Linda Linwood (R-WV). The Senate majority leader expressed frustration…". BOO. HISS.

    But I have long noticed that news articles sometimes actually do this with politicians who are openly gay. Sometimes this seems to have the veneer of mentioning something notably historic about them to help identify them to the reader, but just as often I can't even find that excuse in it. And as a member of that demographic, I can tell you it doesn't feel very good.

    So I have some understanding when people object to being automatically categorized as to sex. Whether they have clear gender identities doesn't necessarily even play into it.

  26. jan said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    I hope this is sufficiently on topic.

    I remember a scene from Flight of the Navigator. The 12-year-old kid gets abducted by a UFO and comes back 8 years later. He doesn't know at this point it's been 8 years. He's talking to a nurse, who also doesn't know what happened to him…and he isn't familiar with current pop culture…

    The nurse says, "Oh, yeah, I went to a concert with some friends last night."

    Really? My mom took me to see the Bee Gees a couple months ago,
    Who'd you see?"

    "Twisted Sister."

    "Never heard of her."

    "It's a him," the nurse says.

    "Oh."

    Then the nurse corrects herself: "Actually, it's a them."

  27. Jason said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

    @Andy Averill

    The use of the term "cisgendered" is a universal signifier of a writer with a feminist or transgender agenda (or, more neutrally, "perspective.") It's as reliable a shibboleth as "Derry vs Londonderry". Fair or not, my mind glazes over as soon as I hear the word, as my internal PC screed filter triggers. In that sense it's a very useful term and I would be very disappointed if it ever travelled outside the domain of gender studies.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    I can't recall a good example off the top of my head, but I think there are a reasonable number of languages around the world where pronouns or forms of address systematically vary (in an obligatory way) depending on the relative age and/or social status of the speaker and the addressee, with sometimes no readily available neutral/unmarked way of communicating without specifying who's who along those dimensions. Possibility One is that these are languages spoken in horribly oppressive ageist/classist societies where everyone is forced to be continuously hyperaware of these differences even where they either are not in practice or should not in justice be salient. Possibility Two is that this is just a historically-contingent feature of the language that sort of fades into the background when you've grown up with it such that native speakers do not in practice have the sort of painful hyperawareness of it we might naively imagine we would if suddenly put in their shoes. There are no doubt lots of intermediate options, but Possibility One strikes me as vulgar pop-Whorfianism that needs some evidentiary support rather than just being assumed.

    One piece of evidence against Possibility One, I think, is that Hungarian famously does not inflect third-person singular pronouns for gender, but one does not generally hear that stereotypically male and female roles (and attitudes re the same) in Hungarian society have been notably less marked/distinct than those in neighboring countries speaking IE languages that do obligatorily distinguish gender in their pronouns. Nor, as far as I know, have the transgendered/intergendered/agendered from all over Europe flocked to Budapest in order to find a markedly more tolerant environment than can be found in their home countries.

    [(myl) Vietnamese is a good example of a language where there are many "pronouns" with complex nuances of connotation. As the Wikipedia article explains:

    While true pronouns exist in Vietnamese, most are rarely used in polite speech. In most cases, kinship terminology is used when referring to oneself, the audience, or a third party. These terms might differ slightly in different regions. Many of them are derived from Chinese loanwords, but have acquired the additional grammatical function of being pronouns over the years.

    Vietnamese terms of reference can reveal the social relationship between the speaker and the person being referred to, differences in age, and even the attitude of the speaker toward that person. Thus a speaker must carefully assess these factors to decide the appropriate term. It's not unusual for strangers to ask each other about age when they first meet, in order to establish the proper terms of address to use.

    ]

  29. T.Merkel said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

    J.W. Brewer, neither does the Georgian language distinguish gender in third person pronouns, nor even make a (common spoken) distinction between "son" and "daughter" (of course technical/poetic terms exist) among others … and Georgian society as it currently exists is pretty grandly intolerant to alternative gender identifications.

  30. Mick O said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

    Are we absolutely certain that some of these folks aren't merely opting out of gender norms but are, in fact, objecting to old-fashioned notions of mathematical certainty? Perhaps they are really saying "I may or may not be more than one person! Don't lay your oppressive notions of integers on me." Given the acceleration of personal discontent with any sort of convenient generalizations, I don't think we can rule this out.

  31. Rubrick said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

    A bit late in the comments for this, but something went wrong in the example in your update: "Is Mary was coming to dinner."

    [(myl) Oops. Fixed now.]

  32. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

    "There are no doubt lots of intermediate options, but Possibility One strikes me as vulgar pop-Whorfianism that needs some evidentiary support rather than just being assumed."

    Someone upthread mentioned Hofstadter's (in)famous essay on sexist language — as one of the commenters on Stan Carey's earlier blog posts pointed out, there are some extremely sexist cultures who don't use gendered pronouns and those are strong counterexamples to the implicit strong pop-Whorfianism position that If You Change Language, You Change The Culture. Arguably, this is the implicit premise of Hofstadter's essay — that the inescapable conclusions we draw from his hypothetical racism-inflected language are the conclusions we should draw from our actual sexist-inflected language.

    As it happens, I'm a big fan of that essay not because I accept any sort of strong Whorfian premise, but because it so powerfully serves to force people to consider one aspect of our sexist culture that is normally not visible to them. That's not to say that the sexist language is driving the sexist cultural institutions and that eliminating them will alter the culture. It's that these sorts of "-isms", these aspects of culture that privilege some kinds of people and ways of being while oppressing others, are endemic and ubiquitous, whether in language or ritual or art or law or anywhere else.

    Changing one of these things for the better doesn't necessarily change the others, but it at the very least does that one bit of good and, at the most, is symbolic and empowering and helps to weaken the synergistic structure of all the parts of the oppressive structure that work together as a whole.

    People like Jason, above, tend to take the opposing extreme on these things and see them as quixotic in the most generous interpretation, and as narcissistic affectations in the least generous. But I think that's at least as foolish as the opposing strong-Whorfianist that places language as the Most Important Thing Ever and, less generously, I tend to suspect that it's an example of privilege protecting itself.

    We don't really need to decide whether language is the ultimate fulcrum upon which social justice is achieved or, alternatively, that it's just the way it is and relatively unimportant. That people tend to want to argue one or the other is, to me, suspicious. It's like the nature/nurture debate or other false dichotomies. People want simple solutions to complex problems, without ambiguity or nuance, because actually doing stuff to make the world a better place is either a lot of work, or uncomfortably uncertain, or both.

    And so, well, lots of us make little personal decisions about what to make important to ourselves and our lives and what not. That one person make a deliberate and consistent decision to avoid gendered language is both an okay decision for them to make, and an okay decision for other people to not make.

    For me, it's both well within the realm of things I can fairly easily do and also I strongly believe in the power of a lot of things that people like Jason think of as merely affectations — that is, even if the use of cisgendered seems to people like Jason to be silly and ostentatious, that he's familiar with it, and an increasing number of people are familiar with it, is sort of a wedge by which questioning certain previously unquestioned things is promulgated in our culture. That it seems ostentatious and is hard to ignore is a feature, not a bug.

    That's true about Ms. Most people still don't use Ms, but the gradually increasing familiarity of it played a role in lessening how everyone in our culture values knowing whether a woman is married or single, which does play some vague role in increasing a woman's ability in our culture to have agency outside the context of marriage. Part — some ambiguous part — of how we've gotten to where we are now arose from those who so annoyingly-and-ostentatiously used Ms.

  33. L33tminion said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    > I was wondering whether the words he/him/his/himself and she/her/her/herself would become as archaic as thou/thee/thy/thine/thyself, replaced in all cases by they/them/their/theirs/themself

    Ah, okay, that makes much more sense.

    I've heard "they" be used to refer to a specific person, too, and the usage doesn't seem odd to me. But I don't expect "they" to deprecate "he" or "she" the way I expect it to deprecate "he or she".

    * At least, in contexts where gender is de-emphasized: "They're a very tall person" doesn't strike me as odd, "they're a very tall man" seems a bit stranger than "he's a very tall man".

  34. mollymooly said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

    Perhaps OP implied this and I missed it, but the survey was aimed at nonbinary trans people, so its results are unlikely to be representative of the general population.

    [(myl) Sorry, I thought that was obvious. I didn't mean to suggest that this option is spreading through the population at large, at this point, but rather that a significant proportion of a small but non-trivial minority are taking it up. It then occurred to me to wonder whether it might at some point spread more widely and eventually replace the alternatives. My reaction was skeptical, but I reminded myself how strange an idea majority support for same-sex marriage would have seemed in 1960.]

  35. The Ridger said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

    I've seen many a web form offering me the choice between Mr, Ms, and Mrs. Way to miss the point!

  36. Ken Brown said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

    I've heard people who would never use words like "cisgendered" or know what it meant use singular "they" about someone of known gender. Its not uncommon round here.

  37. Ellen K. said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

    Ken Brown, do you mean a specific person of known gender? Because traditional singular they usage can be used when gender is known, so long as it's generic.

  38. Chris C. said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

    Sorry if this has been bruited about already, but I was once a complainer about singular "you" myself in a religious context. In the world of Anglophone Eastern Orthodoxy, there has been considerable controversy between those who favor "KJV English" and contemporary formal English in translations of liturgical texts.

    The one argument for the KJV English side which is not based on aesthetics is that, given that God is addressed under three names, it is of vital importance that Christians as monotheists be heard to address him in unambiguously singular terms. Since this cannot be done with modern English pronouns (at least outside the South, and even then not in a formal register) we must fall back on archaic pronouns where singular and plural can be distinguished, and since they can't be used alongside an otherwise contemporary idiom without sounding outlandish, we must adopt the rest of Early Modern English as well.

    Of course, those attempting English translations of Orthodox liturgical texts are rarely fluent in this dialect even when they're native English speakers so it often doesn't come out right even when they're only translating from modern English to Early Modern.

  39. Ellen K. said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

    Regarding Ms., some forms don't have "miss". Though, to Ridger's Mr/Mrs/Ms I'll have to as Dr as usually a 4th choice. Thus, single women without doctorates are forced to use "Ms". Us married women, on the other hand, have a choice. I always choose Ms, though, frankly, my ideal choice would be no title at all.

  40. glitch said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    @Jason: I imagine people used to find the word "heterosexual" an absurd and unnecessary term, too.

  41. Lazar said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 8:36 pm

    I am, admittedly, male, but I'd rather like "Mrs." to become the prefix for all women, on the precedent of "Frau", "Señora" and "Madame" which have all been appropriated by unmarried females in recent years. In the first two, it's a simple case of removing a diminutive suffix – English is a bit messier, with a derivational continuum going *mastress, mistress, Mrs., [Ms.], Miss. The advantage of taking "Mrs." is that it allows women to totally undermine the traditional distinction by universalizing the higher-status form, whereas "Ms." just introduces a new alternative in competition with the other two (see that xkcd comic) and transparently flags its user as having made a contrarian choice (see the comment above about its being seen as ostentatious).

  42. mollymooly said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

    In 1980 Mella Carroll was the first female judge on Irish High Court. Where English practice would have made her "Mrs Justice Carroll" regardless of her not being married, she insisted on being "Miss Justice Carroll". (Most current female judges seem to use "Ms. Justice", though some older ones are "Mrs" or "Miss".)

  43. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

    @Keith Ellis: I think there's a useful comparison here in terms of the attitude towards people who insist that there name must be written in all lower case. Some people will say "the rules are the rules for everyone", and others will rise to the defense with "people should be called by the name they prefer". Also compare the efforts of various countries to insist that their native-language (or colonial-language) name must be X and not Y, when Y has been the normal English name for ages. I'm somehow more sympathetic to the people who struggle with gender identity (even if, in the long run, I probably won't accede to their nonstandard pronoun(s)) than to these other two cases.

    In general, I'm curious how speakers of languages with pervasive two-gender marking like French deal with this issue. (In languages with a neuter, do such people insist on neuter pronouns?)

  44. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

    mollymooly, I can't speak to the Irish judiciary, but in many Anglophone legal systems, the conventional parallel to "Mr. Justice SURNAME" is "Madam Justice SURNAME," which is in turn mostly parallel (except for appending the SURNAME) to other reasonably formal fixed forms of address-to-officeholders like "Madam President" or "Madam Speaker" ("Madam Chairman" is I suppose somewhat contested but certainly nonetheless in widespread use) and like them marks sex but not marital status, just as vocative "ma'am" typically does not specify marital status. Obviously, the other fix is just to go to an unmarked "Justice SURNAME" system. Both approaches exist in the U.S. as not all courts handle it the same way; the standard story I've heard is that the reason the U.S. Supreme Court uses the latter system is that when the issue first arose 30-odd years ago the incumbent males simply deferred to the subjective taste of their new colleague Justice O'Connor. If she'd happened to prefer "Madam Justice O'Connor" that would have been it, and the subsequent female members of the court would likely have been stuck with that resolution, but she preferred the other approach and so her successors are stuck with that one. The unmarked "Justice SURNAME" approach is presumably an instance where the driving force is a perception that the sex of the judge is not salient and thus should not be unnecessarily referred to, since judges of unknown sex or who self-identify outside the "binary" paradigm are not afaik common enough to effect the usage patterns.

    Just as a reminder (hopefully not making the thread too drifty) of how varied and inconsistent resolutions of these issues are, the fix the U.S. legal profession has adopted for another sex-marking issue is for the old custom (a somewhat silly and pseudo-feudal one IMHO) of referring to lawyers in writing as FIRSTNAME LASTNAME, Esq. — thus indicating some ineffable caste superiority to a mere Mr. FIRSTNAME LASTNAME — to simply be extended to female lawyers, even though "esquire" in the British-class-distinction lexicon from which it was adapted was as unequivocally male as "sir" or "lord" or "mister." I personally find that extension unaesthetic and don't use it myself (while trying hard not to inflict my peevery on others), but it's I think indicative of a general point which is that in some contexts using a historically-marked-as-male term "generically" to include females has come to be considered so offensive that the term may almost be driven off the market even for males in favor of a new unmarked alternative, whereas in other contexts extending the historically-marked-as-male term to become generic and encompass females becomes standard/obligatory. I'm not sure if there's a particularly coherent general pattern of which goes which way, as opposed to just a bunch of ad hoc issue-by-issue resolutions.

  45. julie lee said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 1:26 am

    I just noticed that Jerry Friedman used a singular "they" (below) in his comment (March 7) to Victor Mair's LL blog "Nerd, Geek, PK…" (March 5).

    “I'm waiting for an LL commentator to say they were a jock…"

    I've never used a singular "they" myself, but since this reads quite well, I'll trying using it.

    Chinese was so simple before —one word TA 他 for "he, she, it". But now, in
    emulation of English, Chinese has adopted TA他 “he", TA她 "she", and TA它 "it",
    creating the same problem of having to use "he or she". To use
    TAMEN 他們 "they" as a singular would sound bizarre in Chinese.

  46. julie lee said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 1:44 am

    @Lazar:
    'I am, admittedly, male, but I'd rather like "Mrs." to become the prefix for all women, on the precedent of "Frau", "Señora" and "Madame" '.

    This reminds me of the older Chinese custom of addressing women as XIANSHENG 先生
    "Mr." as a sign of respect in letters. Males had a much higher status than females. Thus, my mother's nephews called her "Uncle" instead of "Aunt" in Chinese, out of respect. And fathers often addressed a daughter as "Son" in letters. So, my father's Chinese letter would call me "Julie Son" instead of "Julie Daughter". There's some of this in the West too. A woman lawyer, Jane Smith, for example, will often be designated in correspondence as "Jane Smith, Esq."

  47. neminem said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 2:24 am

    This makes me oddly happy. I don't know *why* it makes me so happy, but it does. I mean, I already use it to refer to a singular person not only when all I know about the person is that there was only one of them: "someone dropped their cell phone", but also when I know their name but not their gender: "Someone named Kyle dropped their cell phone phone; would Kyle please get it back from me?" So why *not* take it just one small step further?

  48. michael farris said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 2:44 am

    "I am, admittedly, male, but I'd rather like "Mrs." to become the prefix for all women, on the precedent of "Frau", "Señora" and "Madame"

    Polish has also gone this route with universal use of pani (though panna 'miss' can still be found in some bureaucratic forms).

    Still, my SAE intuitions would favor 'miss' perhaps because it's been used more to refer to married women than the reverse and can be used as a form of address on its own.

  49. Ellen K. said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    But is "miss" ever used for a married woman with her surname? I've never seen that, though it's used with first names without regards to marital status. If someone wrote Miss Kozisek I'd think they were confused as to my marital status. (Or is they said it with the S sound long enough for it to clearly not be Ms.)

    As for making Mrs. universal, yuk. I dislike it, because it defines women in terms of their husband. Mrs. used to be used with the husband's first name, not the woman's own name.

  50. Marc F said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    I use "they" to refer to a single individual fairly frequently. At work, I sometimes receive emails about employees, where the person is named in the email, but I am unaware if the individual is a man or a woman. I will use "they" in a response.

    For example:
    request: "Pat Smith's login doesn't work on the new system."
    my response: "They will need to file an IT ticket."

  51. Keith Ivey said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 10:36 am

    I'm surprised at the number of commenters who view "Ms." as somehow still unusual. To me, in the United States, it seems absolutely standard and noncontroversial nowadays.

  52. Robert said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    I believe teachers here in Australia are still often addressed as "Miss" irrespective of marital status, informally at least, especially bare without a given name; "Miss, may I be excused?". I suspect this may be partially a remnant of the good old days when female teachers were single and expected to resign on marriage.
    My understanding is that this kind of use of "Miss" is much more common addressing ballet or dance teachers.

  53. julie lee said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    @Lazar:
    'I am, admittedly, male, but I'd rather like "Mrs." to become the prefix for all women, on the precedent of "Frau", "Señora" and "Madame" '.

    In the British hit TV series "Downton Abbey", Mrs. Hughes, Lord Grantham's middle-aged housekeeper, explains in one scene that she was never married and that Mrs. was a courtesy title, following the custom in those great houses. The title "Miss" applied in the old days to a middle-aged or elderly woman always signified that she was an old maid (in Chinese, "old young miss", lao-xiao-jie, or "old virgin", lao-chu-nyu), as they would say in the old days. Given the mores of that time, the title of Mrs. was certainly most gracious. I myself prefer Mrs. to Miss or Ms. as a general form of address for women. In America (and I daresay on other continents too), there is still an unspoken stigma to being a middle-aged unmarried woman. Just look at all the magazines with beautiful women on their covers whose chief content is how to catch a man.

  54. Levantine said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    What Robert said of Australia is true for the UK too, at least when I was at secondary school in the '90s. We would call female teachers 'miss' and male teachers 'sir', except when addressing them by surname, in which case it was Miss, Ms, or Mr X.

  55. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    It sounds like one thing English definitely does not yet have is an epicene polite form of address to strangers, i.e. something akin to singular they that could be slotted in as an additional option in the set "Excuse me, sir/ma'am/miss." Even for those English speakers where vocative "dude" can be freely addressed to females, "Excuse me, dude" is just not at the same level of formality/politeness. Now, maybe there just isn't enough of a felt need, but it would seem that some of the advocates of more aggressive use of singular they (i.e. to use it to apply to an identifiable person of known sex) ought to feel that need, and come up with some proposals.

  56. michael farris said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    "But is "miss" ever used for a married woman with her surname? "

    At least for performers, it has been. I've heard expressions like "Miss Joanne Woodward" (though she was very famously married) and references like "Miss Taylor" or "Miss Ross" (Elizabeth and Diana respectively regardless of their marital status of the time).

    The only pre-existing usage the other way around that I'm aware of is the old practice of using Mrs. as a courtesy title for servants and the tendency (when I was young) for small children to use Mrs. for any adult woman whose last name was known to them.

    Expanding Miss as a generic makes more sense to me than expanding Mrs. (or Ms. to be perfectly frank).

  57. Robert Coren said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

    Yes, it's been made clear and several fictional period dramas (Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, for sure) that cooks and housekeepers in the service of aristocratic families were referred to as "Mrs. {surname}", irrespective of marital status.

    As to "Ms.", I remember when it first became current that my mother laughed at it, pointing out that the form had existed (usually with the spelling "Miz") in certain (princi
    pally Southern) US dialects for a long time. As an example (one could argue about the authenticity of the dialect), the female characters in Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip were all called "Miz {something}", whether their status was married (Miz Rackety Coon), single (Miz Mamzell Hepzibah), or ambiguous (Miz Beaver).

  58. julie lee said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    @michael farris

    Yes, I'd forgotten that "Miss" has been expanded in usage, as in "Miss Elizabeth Taylor".

    In Chinese, "Miss" and "Mrs" can been skirted by addressing a woman with the seemingly neutral title NU-SHI 女士. But looked at closely, NU-SHI translates literally as "female gentleman". I don't know if this title is still used on China Mainland. It was a common alternative for "Miss" or "Mrs." in pre-Mao times and is still used widely in Taiwan, etc., outside Mainland China as a term of respect and courtesy.

  59. Martha said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    It seems pretty common to me for "missus" to be reduced to "miss" when spoken. I'd imagine that most people who do that wouldn't write "Miss," but married women do get called "Miss" with their last name. I first noticed this when I was in school, so it's possible that it's more likely to get reduced the more you say the person's name, and you say your teachers' name a bunch. I can't remember the last time I called someone Mrs., but my (probably unreliable) intuition is that upon meeting a Mrs., I'd be sure to pronounce it fully, and by the time I felt casual enough to reduce it, I'd no longer be calling her Mrs. anyway.

  60. Ken Brown said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

    @Ellen K – yes, I sometimes hear singular they used of individuals previously named in the conversation that the same speaker has already used a ge dered pronoun for.

  61. LDavidH said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

    Or you could just stop using titles altogether, as in Sweden – it's been at least a generation since anybody was addressed as Mr/Mrs Miss anything.

  62. Meesher said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

    @ Ellen K.

    But is "miss" ever used for a married woman with her surname?

    If you'll follow the link to Douglas Hofstadter's 'Person Paper' in Mark Reed's comment above, and scroll down to the ps, you'll see Hofstadter quoting William Safire, complaining that Geraldine Ferraro really ought to either use her married name – and Mrs. – or keep her maiden name with a Miss.

    Apparently, and I'm not well-enough versed on the politics of honorifics and marital status in the 80's, Safire felt that 'Miss' properly indicates not that you're unmarried but that you've kept the name you were born with.

    Finally, to get back to the main topic, I'm in my twenties and know a couple transgender people who prefer 'they'. I really don't find it very difficult to accommodate in speech, but it can get a bit confusing as a listener if you hear 'they' and you're not sure who or what the antecedent is.

  63. Erin said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    As a data point, I'm a high school student of the sort who goes around correcting hyphen use on signs, as are many of my friends, and we're all happy to use 'they' when referring to those who prefer it. It's not necessarily easy, but it does get easier with time.

  64. Eric P Smith said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

    Thankyou to Mark and all commenters. In the past I have tended to dislike singular 'they', but following this interesting discussion I am now much more accepting of it.

  65. Rose said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 9:40 pm

    I wonder if Facebook might have a role in increasing people's exposure to/preference for singular 'they'.

    Facebook profiles only allow you to select 'male' or 'female', and even though the selected gender can be hidden from your actual profile, references to your activity will still use the corresponding pronouns. So, some people use a workaround to list a zero value for gender – and then all references to activity use 'they', e.g. 'John Smith changed their profile picture'.

    I know quite a few people who've done this, and not just because they disprefer identifying as either male or female – there is also a (probably misguided) idea that it will lead to less gender-targeted advertising.

  66. Matt McIrvin said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

    @Meesher:

    Apparently, and I'm not well-enough versed on the politics of honorifics and marital status in the 80's, Safire felt that 'Miss' properly indicates not that you're unmarried but that you've kept the name you were born with.

    I was a teenager in the US, and I can definitely say that I have no awareness of any such rule existing at the time. I'm pretty sure that Safire was intentionally insisting on a usage rule that was either archaic or fictitious.

  67. Matt McIrvin said,

    March 9, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    …note, however, that even today there are a considerable number of Americans who are uncomfortable with women keeping their last names after marriage, which was probably what Safire was really peeving about. Some of my older relatives persist in addressing cards and letters to my wife with my last name instead of hers, and some even use the "Mrs. [husband's name]" construction.

  68. Phil Bowler said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 12:07 am

    @Julie Lee:
    FYI, according to my wife, who is Chinese, 女士 is used in China, but only in a very formal situation. I asked her about the use of a male term for a female ('Julie son' in your example), and she had never heard of it!

  69. Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’ | Sentence first said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 7:31 am

    [...] of interest: Geoffrey Pullum's definitive argument for singular they; Mark Liberman on the future of singular they; more on Quakers and singular you. About these ads var wpcom_adclk_hovering = false; var [...]

  70. Robert Coren said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 9:44 am

    @Meesher: "it can get a bit confusing as a listener if you hear 'they' and you're not sure who or what the antecedent is."

    Well, I was thinking the same thing, but German-speakers seem to cope with the possibility that "sie" might be third-person feminine singular, third-person plural, or (in speech, where you can't detect capitalization) second-person polite. There are always ambiguities, and various strategies emerge for dealing with them.

  71. Narmitaj said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 10:03 am

    @ LDavidH – "Or you could just stop using titles altogether, as in Sweden – it's been at least a generation since anybody was addressed as Mr/Mrs Miss anything.

    To go back to the Quakers (referred to in the first comment), they tend to do this as well, using first & last names only and not Mr/Mrs Miss (and dear Friend rather than Dear Sir etc). Mind you, at my Quaker school in York in the 60s/70s we called the Masters (aka Nixes) "Sir" and referred to them (formally) as Mr This (or, in rare cases, Miss That).

  72. Sili said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    Annoying. I know I heard a case of using "they" followed by "herself" on HIGNFY when watching old episodes the other day, but stupidly, I didn't write it down.

    But anything that hastens the death of "xe"& al. is welcome news.

  73. julie lee said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    @Phil Bowler

    Phil, Do you and your wife live in mainland China now, did she grow up on China mainland, and how old is she, may I ask? The Chinese language has changed a lot on Mainland China (as opposed to Taiwan). Speaking broadly, China (Mainland) is Communist, Taiwan is Nationalist. Refugees from Mao fled to Taiwan, and then started a huge diaspora to America, Britain, Australia, Japan, Brazil, etc., the "free world", keeping in large part the pre-Mao Chinese language. This was of course just another stage in the historical Chinese diaspora,

    I found a lot of differences between colloguial Mandarin in China and in the largely pre-Mao Mandarin of my family and friends, who had fled to Taiwan, and then the U.S. For instance for "okay" in pre-Mao Chinese we say "hao" (okay), whereas Chinese from the Mainland typically say "xing" (pronounced like shing in English). It's like when Americans say "Yes!", "Right!", in agreement, and the English say "Quite!", meaning "I agree". Even "da lu" (Mainland) is an expression meaning China that we from Taiwan use, whereas Mainland Chinese just say "zhong guo" (Central Kingdom, China).

    If your wife was born after Mao's takeover (1949) of China, i.e., is under 62 years of age, her language would be in many ways different from pre-Mao Chinese (which is still used by us in the anti- or non- Communist diaspora). If her parents are under 70, say, their Chinese would be in many ways different from pre-Mao Chinese. My late father was born more than a hundred years ago, and he received a traditional classical-Chinese education. My Chinese name is Zhu-li (Julie). He often in letters addressed me as "Li er" (Li son). One might say that the Chinese language is heavily male-biased or sexist. A common word for "children" is "er-tung" (literally "sons little-ones"), just as in English human beings are also called man-kind, the word "man" representing the species, which I myself don't mind here, because it's a convention.

    In the Chinese that I and the people I know here in America and in Taiwan use, "nyu-shi 女士“
    (female gentleman) is a polite form of address. It's widely used in correspondence or newspaper articles, more polite than using "Miss" (xiaojie) or "Mrs." (taitai). Perhaps it's less widely used on Mainland China. It's like addressing a woman lawyer as Jane Smith, Esq. , but used for all women, not just lawyers. It's not as formal as Esq. I translate nyu-shi as "female gentleman" but it could be translated as "gentlemaness", just as "author" gives us "authoress", or "Daniel" gives us "Daniela". It's so commonly used now that we don't even think of the original literal meaning.

  74. Jonathan D said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

    Robert, I think it's not uncommon to find teachers (especially in primary school) addressed as 'Miss' irrespective of gender, let alone marital status.

  75. Brian T said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 8:14 am

    My favorite "Miss" anecdote, veracity undetermined:

    Peggy Lee, appearing at a Manhattan venue, required that the marquee read simply "MISS PEGGY LEE" so Anita O'Day, appearing down the block, had her marquee read "DON'T MISS ANITA O'DAY."

  76. Robert Coren said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    @Jonathan D: Really? Male teachers addressed as "Miss"? That sure was
    n't the case when I were a lad.

  77. Simon Mitternacht said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

    Just like the disappearance in 1960s Sweden of the equivalents of Mr/Mrs/Ms (referred to in an earlier comment) was a conscious effort, the artificial third person singular pronoun 'hen' (instead of 'han' and 'hon') is now rapidly becoming popular. It's come to the point where the editors of major national newspapers have had to defend their choice not to adopt this form.

    There is even a browser plugin, the 'henerator', that changes all 'hon' and 'han' to 'hen'.

  78. Ken Brown said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 7:09 pm

    @Robert Coren. I've heard it with my own ears. From very young kids and it often leads to embarrased laughter, but its a common mistake.

  79. julie lee said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

    @Lazar:
    'I am, admittedly, male, but I'd rather like "Mrs." to become the prefix for all women, on the precedent of "Frau", "Señora" and "Madame" '.

    Re. Chinese NU-SHI 女士 “female genntleman" "gentlemaness", a widely use courtesy-title for women:
    Come to think of it, it has parallels in European languages. E.g. Senora from Senor, Kaiserin from Kaiser, Mrs. (Mistress) from Mister, Master.

  80. Off topic: Smoke science, universal language, singular they, nuts about Nutella, Alyssa Milano | SiliconBeat said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 7:20 am

    [...] world peace. Speaking of language, this might send shudders down the spine of purists: a push for a singular they. In case you missed it, the Nutella theft problem at Columbia. And 1980s flashback: Who knew teen [...]

  81. Vidor said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

    I'll take "narcissistic affectation" for $400, Alex

  82. Are He and She They? | Caxton said,

    March 18, 2013 @ 6:54 am

    [...] singular pronoun could properly be used. Mark Liberman has drawn attention to this development on Language Log, and so has  Peter [...]

  83. Phil Bowler said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 7:39 am

    @julie lee
    Apologies for not responding sooner.
    "Phil, Do you and your wife live in mainland China now, did she grow up on China mainland, and how old is she, may I ask?"
    Yes, we do. My wife was born in 1962, so, of course, grew up with post-revolutionary language. I'm afraid my Chinese isn't good enough for me to discuss these things with her mother, who's in her late 70s. As for 'OK', my wife says that both 'hǎo' and 'xíng' are used, and, for 'right, correct', 'duì'.

  84. Who they? | Ten minutes past deadline said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    [...] been a lot of discussion recently about the pros and cons of singular "they". Just to make a quick point as the last blog through the door on the [...]

  85. The Negative Canon: Singular ‘they’ | Caxton said,

    July 18, 2013 @ 5:09 am

    [...] further development in the use of they is its use, reported on Language Log: . . . in reference to a specific, definite, known person, as in ‘Kim helped themself to another [...]

  86. graywyvern said,

    April 14, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

    as an English tutor at a community college with an unusually diverse student body, for over ten years now i have been observing* the "singular they" so much that (with the "impersonal you") i made a handout warning against using it in academic writing. it is without a doubt 21c standard usage–at least among twentysomethings–even as many of them are ESOL.

    i don't know exactly when i first became aware of it. decades ago, when the question occurred to me, i purposely chose it out of a number of alternatives (though i still have texts with "ze"). certainly in speech i use it, though almost never in writing.
    ——————————————–

    *just as i see the pronounced -(e)d in the past participle disappearing. maybe a post on 21c English forthcoming?

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