The New Old Pronoun
Can “they" be a singular pronoun? If you want to learn a new notion of this word added recently by most of the dictionaries keep reading.
Let’s talk about the difference between a singular “they" and a plural “they".
Pro-nouns? What are they? They often confuse me…. What about you?
Let’s refresh our memories.
A pronoun takes the place of other nouns. Some pronouns are: I, we, he, she, all, it, they, their, etc.
Pronouns he, she, him, her, hers, his, himself, herself indicate gender. They are gendered pronouns.
Pronouns that don’t indicate gender such as they, them, their, etc. are called gender-neutral pronouns.
We’ll be discussing them merely from a linguistic point of view.
Do you know, how the best dictionaries define “they”?
The Miriam Webster dictionary introduced a new notion of they in September 2019 to refer to a person with nonbinary gender identity.
THE NEW OLD PRONOUN: SINGULAR “THEY"
Here’s what Miriam Webster Dictionary says about “they”:
Though singular ‘they’ is old, it’s been used since 1300s, ‘they’ as a nonbinary pronoun is new.
The development of singular “they" goes the same way as the development of the singular “you’ from the plural “you". We got used to “you" having both singular and plural notion, right?
The first notion the dictionary gives us:
is used to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context.
Some of the best world’s writers used singular they. For example, William Thackeray.
“A person can’t help their birth." — Rosalind, in W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)
The second, new notion is: it is used for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female.
Cambridge dictionary gives the following definition: “they" is used to avoid saying “he or she":
“There’s someone at the door." “What do they want?"
Since 2014, Facebook has allowed users to be referred to by “they". Harvard University allows students to identify which pronouns they want to use. “Somebody left their coat in the hall. Would they please collect it?"
HOW TO USE THE OLD NEW PRONOUN “THEY"
Would you like to see how well-known fairy-tale sounds with a new gender-neutral pronoun “they”?
To give you a vivid example, I will give you an abstract from a Grimm’s fairy tale.
LITTLE RED-CAP [LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD]
Once upon a time, there was a dear little girl who was loved by everyone who looked at her, but most of all by her grandmother, and there was nothing that she would not have given to the child. Once she gave her a little cap of red velvet, which suited her so well that she would never wear anything else; so, she was always called ‘Little Red-Cap.’
LITTLE RED-CAP [LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD]
Once upon a time, there was a dear little person who was loved by everyone who looked at them, but most of all by their grandmother, and there was nothing that she would not have given to the child. Once she gave them a little cap of red velvet, which suited them so well that they would never wear anything else; so they were always called ‘Little Red-Cap.’
A PLURAL VERB WITH THE SINGULAR PRONOUN
If you look at the last sentence, you’ll notice that we use a plural verb with the new old singular “they", despite its singular notion. It might sound weird, but if you think of it, “you” was plural for a long time and only much later we started to use it as a singular pronoun. We are used to using the plural verb when ‘you’ refers to one person. “You are" sounds normal, right?
The singular “they” is recognized by dictionaries and guides in English.
The difference is that in the 14th-century gender-neutral pronouns were used to refer to an unknown person while today it’s a way to affirm your identity, but that’s a different story that has nothing to do with linguistics.
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