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Why Is the Singular Use of ‘They’ so Controversial?

Merriam-Webster stirred up controversy when it added an additional definition to accommodate the word's nonbinary usage — and passions are still high.
October 13, 2022
6 mins read

How much thought does the average American put into gender-neutral pronouns like “they” rather than “he” or “her”? Chances are, it crosses their minds much more often after Merriam-Webster broke the internet with their 2019 announcement of “they” as word of the year. Online communities on both sides of the discourse immediately erupted over this move. While some applauded the decision as a sign of inclusivity, others criticized it for trying to be too “woke.” The question remains: Why is the singular use of “they” so controversial?

Nonbinary usage of the singular “they”

People who identify outside of the simple gender binary of male or female have brought the singular use of “they” into the spotlight in the 21st century. In 2017, “Billions” was credited as the first regular television show to bring a nonbinary character who uses they/them pronouns to the screen. From kids programs to crime dramas, many television shows quickly added nonbinary main characters who use gender-neutral pronouns to their productions. This type of representation put nonbinary folks in the spotlight. It has also stirred up a lot of debate with claims that adopting “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun is a part of the “war on grammar.

Besides nonbinary people using “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun, the word has also been slowly replacing the former use of “s/he” and “he/she.” This usage is more often used to refer to a general person or someone whose gender is largely unknown.

Gender-neutral pronouns date back further than the late-2010s

While it’s easy to blame the internet and contemporary television characters for introducing the use of the singular “they” pronoun, its usage may actually date hundreds and hundreds of years back. The Oxford English Dictionary published a piece noting that the gender-neutral pronoun had been used as far back as the year 1375. The article goes on to detail how even though the singular use of “they” wasn’t widely criticized until the 18th century, many modern institutions still refuse to acknowledge its usage when referring to one person. The Oxford article does wrap up by suggesting that those who refuse to use this pronoun may be considered “hopelessly out of date.

This calls attention to how the use of language often changes over time. Even though many still define “they” as a plural-only pronoun, Merriam-Webster Dictionary reminds readers that the word “you” was once considered to be predominately plural.

Some consider the singular use of “they” to be grammatically incorrect

Those spending any time reading through threads on Reddit, Quora and similar forums may find countless grammatical purists arguing against using they, them and their to refer to a single person. These arguments come from the 18th-century suggestion that “they” should only be used when referring to multiple people. Even in recent years, some are quick to slam the usage as not being appropriate for “standard English.” There are even critics who acknowledge that the idea of gender-neutral pronouns is a good thing but criticize the usage of “they” in particular. While alternative gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, none have caught on that well. Some have gone as far as to suggest that “he” really is a gender-neutral pronoun that should not be replaced or altered in any way. This criticism goes hand-in-hand with the controversy over replacing the word “man” with “person” at the end of job titles.

Schools have stirred up a lot of drama regarding pronouns

In debates about pronouns, both college professors and grade school teachers have been featured front and center, especially those who are professionals in teaching the English language. In 2017, a Florida teacher’s letter asking to be addressed by “they” and “them” pronouns in the classroom caused a commotion among parents online. Eventually, the content of the letter found its way to national news headlines. A lot of confusion and angry parents resulted in school officials having to apologize formally on behalf of the school. The school assured parents that, “Students are being treated respectfully and appropriately.”

Colleges and universities can also be difficult places for students to navigate if they use gender-neutral pronouns since this can ignite a power struggle between faculty and students. While some students have recommended reaching out to professors ahead of time to address which pronouns they use, others have commented that they speak up less in class for fear that they will be referred to with the wrong pronoun. Part of this power struggle has been attributed to professors who may be unwilling to change the ways that they do things in their classrooms. However, evidence shows that affirming gender identity — by use of proper names and pronouns — can have a profoundly positive effect on mental health by reducing rates of suicide and self-harm.

Everyday Americans tend to remain divided on pronoun controversy

In late 2019, the Pew Research Center published a study suggesting that while 52% of Americans have stated they are comfortable with using gender-neutral pronouns, around 47% state that it makes them uncomfortable. Age and political party affiliation seemed to be the biggest dividers among those polled. Unsurprisingly, younger generations responded that they felt more comfortable using “they” as a singular pronoun. Democrats also responded more favorably to the use of the pronoun compared to Republicans. When considering both age and party affiliations, however, young Democrats were much more likely to use “they” as a pronoun than Republicans in the same age category. This suggests that the current political climate’s hostility toward nonbinary people and inclusive language may be partially to blame for the consistent backlash.

In the end, language will keep evolving as it always has

From Merriam-Webster to The Associated Press Stylebook and more, language institutions are evolving to accept the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. As these institutions change to reflect the times, there is also growing acceptance in academia and the attitudes of everyday citizens. Whether or not one agrees with the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, it is clear that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Kane Howard, York College

Writer Profile

Kane Howard

York College

Kane Howard is an English major at York College. He has experience with writing both fiction and non-fiction works.

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