By "Them" I Mean "Him" or "Her"

Angie Halama

Here's a transcript of a recent grammar conversation we had via an all-staff e-mail that was jumpstarted by Angie King (Angie 2.0). It includes such unrelated subjects as manbabies and Vitamin Water.

Angie 2.0: So, how do we feel about using “them” and “they” as singular pronouns?

Personally, I like it. A sentence gets clunky when you throw in “her or him” or “she or he.” And you can’t always pluralize the subject to get around it.

Meghan: Since we aim for a conversational tone, it’s one of those rules we can agree to break.

Melissa: It makes me crazy. I think it sounds uneducated.

David: Whoever came up with the English language forgot to come up with a gender-neutral singular pronoun to use. So we had to borrow one. I’m fine with that.

Angie 2.0: Here's the sentence I was wrangling with: "You give your growing baby the vitamins and minerals that help them develop."

Jason: What if you have the face of a baby, and your baby has a man face?

Angie 1.0: Then the baby would be a monster. And we could use “it.”

Kristina: I don't even understand the sentence! Are they talking about breastmilk? Can we just say BREASTMILK?

Meghan: No, they're talking about Vitamin Water. It's a marketing alliance.

Angie 2.0: Um, no. This is about prenatal care.

Melissa: How about "Your growing baby needs vitamins and minerals to develop"?

Meghan: Melissa is a genius.

Yes. This is how these things get decided.

In summary: When using a casual, conversational tone, we've decided it's okay to use "them" or "they" as a singular pronoun—but only if restructuring the sentence to avoid it doesn't work.

And for more formal writing, "he or she" is likely more appropriate. Even if we think it's clunky.

Some grammar and usage guides find nothing wrong with them/they as a singular pronoun. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says:

The fact is, however, that the plural they has already overwhelmed the singular he as generic pronoun at most levels and in all prose except some Edited English and very Formal writing. Much Edited English now avoids the singular entirely by using the plural for all parts of the sentence:Students must attend classes if they hope to pass their courses.

And guess what? This usage isn't new. And The American Heritage Book of English Usage points out that it's been around since the 1300s.

This post on the Language Log, a blog written by linguistics professors, just confirms all of the above:

Avoid singular they if you want to; nobody is making you use it. But don't ever think that it is new (it goes back to early English centuries ago), or that it is illogical (there is no logical conflict between being syntactically singular and semantically plural), or that it is ungrammatical (it is used by the finest writers who ever used English, writers who uncontroversially knew what they were doing).

Of course, one of those fine writers happens to be a favorite around here: Jane Austen. Thanks to Grammar Girl for pointing this out (p. 13 of her writing guide [PDF]).