The 600-Year History of the Singular 'They'
For evidence that language is constantly evolving, look at the history of they. The singular form of the pronoun, which has become mainstream in recent years, can describe individuals whose gender isn’t specified—replacing the clunky he or she—and is used by nonbinary people who identify with the pronoun. The AP Stylebook has accepted such functions of they, them, and their since 2017, and Merriam-Webster made the singular they its word of the year in 2019. The reinvention of the traditionally plural pronoun may seem sudden, but its second meaning isn’t as modern as you may assume: The word has appeared as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in English literature for centuries.
The plural they originated around the 13th century, and it didn’t take long for its singular form to emerge. As professor and linguist Dennis Baron writes in a post at the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known instance of the singular they can be found in the medieval poem William and the Werewolf from 1375. A section translated from the Middle English to modern English reads, “Each man hurried [. . .] till they drew near [. . .] where William and his darling were lying together.” Because most language changes develop orally before they’re written down, this form of they likely had been in use for years by this point.
You don’t have to dig through obscure texts to find examples of this version of the word—it’s been employed by some of the greatest writers of the English language for centuries. In 1386, barely a decade after the singular they made its debut in print, Geoffrey Chaucer used it in The Canterbury Tales. William Shakespeare was a fan of the usage, writing it into several of his plays, including A Comedy of Errors and Hamlet. Two centuries later, Jane Austen used they to describe a single entity in Mansfield Park. She wrote in her 1814 novel, “I would have everybody marry if they could do it properly.”
For centuries, this function of they was grammatically accepted. It could transition from plural to singular depending on the situation, similar to the pronoun you. Only in the 18th century did grammarians declare that the singular they was invalid, their reasoning being that a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. Never mind that you, which used to be exclusively plural, had undergone this exact change. According to these sticklers, it made more sense to use he as a “gender-neutral” pronoun when describing one person.
The antecedent rule is true in a semantic sense, but it ignores the conceptual meaning of the word they that wordsmiths have been employing for centuries. “There’s a difference between conceptual singularness and grammatical singularness,” Kirby Conrod, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Washington, tells Mental Floss. “A thing is singular if it takes a singular verb agreement. So if it takes is in English, that makes it [grammatically] singular.”
According to this convention, you can never be singular in some versions of English, though anyone who’s ever addressed an individual directly knows this isn’t the case. “Many varieties of English do not say they is,” Conrod says. “Similarly, some varieties of English don’t say you is—some varieties do—so by this measure, they and you aren’t grammatically singular. Conceptually it’s a different story.”
Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, W.H. Auden, and other writers from the 19th century and beyond weren’t the only ones who flouted this rule. Most people continued to use the singular they in their speech and writing, often without realizing it. This is still true today. Sentences like “everyone should bring their towel to the beach” or “they forgot their wallet” are technically incorrect according to the rule invented a few hundred years ago, but they sound natural in everyday conversation. Replacing they in those examples with he or she, on the other hand, would feel forced.
Though both usages are conceptually singular, the they that has gained prominence in recent years is distinct from the version of the word used in Medieval literature. “The very old kind of singular they, the one that is used by Chaucer and Shakespeare and all these examples we love to pull out, if you look at all these examples of these hundreds-of-year-old singular theys, they are with like each man or every person,” Conrod says. “None of them are with like Bob or that guy. The new singular they is when we can use they with a single, specific person.”
The singular they, whether it’s referring to a specific individual or the general members of a group, is accepted by many major publications today. It also attracts more hate than ever. Because the term is used by many nonbinary people, it’s the target of transphobia-fueled attacks. But a word’s “proper” usage isn’t decided by its most vocal advocates or opponents. The conventions of a language are shaped by the general population that uses it daily. Based on the singular they’s prominence in books, poems, and casual conversation since the 14th century, it’s earned its spot in the English dictionary.
This story has been updated from its original version to include quotes from Kirby Conrod.