A singular use of THEY
The Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, as part of its Corporations Law Simplification Program, set up a Simplification Task Force to examine various drafting issues. In September 1995 this task force produced a paper entitled A singular use of THEY. It was freely distributed by the Department, without charge, but has now become a rarity.
It is reproduced here for the interest of our members, at the suggestion of Elizabeth Murphy and by kind permission of the Attorney-General’s Department. If you ever worry about apparent inconsistency in using they, them or their after a singular antecedent (such as, Has someone lost their pen?), let AG’s convincing arguments reassure you.
About this series
The central objective of the Simplification Program is a law that is capable of being understood by its users. This paper is one in a series which explores some of the recommendations the Task Force has made to remove complication that arises in language and layout through current drafting practices. The aim is always clarity and a document in language that is familiar and easy to read.
In the First and draft Second Corporate Law Simplification Bills, they has been used to refer to an indefinite noun, rather than the traditional legal he or the cumbersome he or she. Proposed new subsection 242(5) in Schedule 6 of the First Bill, for instance, reads:
“A person is entitled to have an alternative address included in notices under subsections (1), (2) and (8) if:
(a) their name, but not their residential address, is on an electoral roll … ”
This paper sets out the reasons for this decision.
What the dictionaries say
The 3 great unabridged dictionaries of the English language are the Oxford English Dictionary (Clarendon Press: 1989), Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Merriam Webster: 1986), and the Dictionary of the English Language (Random House: 1987). Here are extracts from their entries for they, them, themselves and their.
they 2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex ( = ‘he or she’).
1526 Pilgr. Perf….1759 CHESTERF. Lett. rv. ccclv. 170 If a person is born of a .. gloomy temper .. they cannot help it
their 3. Often used in relation to a singular sb. or pronoun denoting a person, after each, every, either, neither, no one, every one, etc. Also so used instead of ‘his or her’, when the gender is inclusive or uncertain … (Not favoured by grammarians.)
13 . . Cursor M. 389 (Cott.) Bath ware made sun and mon, Aither wit ther ouen light.
they 1b: he or she: used with an indefinite singular antecedent < everyone tries to make the person they love just like themselves – H.D. Skidmore >
< the liability for damages lies against whoever is knowingly involved in such sale whether or not they receive any part of the consideration – U.S. Code >
themselves 3: HIMSELF, HERSELF – used with a singular antecedent that is indefinite or that does not specify gender < nobody can call themselves oppressed – Leonard Wibberley >
they 3: (used with an indefinite singular antecedent in place of the definite masculine he or the definite feminine she): Whoever is of voting age whether they are interested in politics or not, should vote.
- Usage. Long before the use of generic HE was condemned as sexist, the pronouns, THEY, and THEM were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance.
It isn’t new
The entries from the Oxford English Dictionary forcibly demonstrate that the use of they to refer to a singular noun is not an innovation of recent decades or even of this century. The first citation in the Dictionary’s files is from the 14th century so that we know that the practice had been adopted in writing at least by then. There may have been much earlier examples which have been lost and the practice may well have been established in speech before it found its way into writing.
In adopting they with singular reference we are simply following a long established convention of the English language.
Furthermore, as our illustrations from literature on this page demonstrate, the usage has enjoyed continued strong support down the centuries. Even those who are universally regarded as among the finest composers of our language can be found using they with singular antecedents and as far back as 1926, H W Fowler, of Modern English Usage fame, declared that as anybody can see for themselves was the ‘popular solution’ (pp 391-392).
Equally significant, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary prepared the entries for the letter t between 1909 and 1915. In other words, lexicographers have been recognising this use of they as normal standard practice—despite what some grammarians say—all this century.
Now leaden slumber with life’s strength doth fight,
And every one to rest themselves betake William Shakespeare
So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses The Bible (King James Version)
God send everyone their heart’s desire William Shakespeare
Little did I think … to make a … complaint against a person very dear to you, but don’t let them be so proud … not to care how they affront everybody else Samuel Richardson
Everybody fell a laughing, as how could they help it Henry Fielding
A person can’t help their birth William Thackeray
But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing Lewis Carroll
Some people say that if you are very fond of a person you always think them handsome Henry Jones
I know when I like a person directly I see them Virginia Woolf
Everyone was absorbed in their own business Andrew Motion
‘There’s a bus waiting outside the terminal to take everybody to their hotels,’ said Linda David Lodge
Nobody would ever marry if they thought it over George Bernard Shaw
You just ask anybody for Gordon Skerrett and they’ll point him out to you. Scott Fitzgerald
Nobody stopped to stare, everyone has themselves to think about Susan Hill
His own family were occupied, each with their particular guests Evelyn Waugh
How popular is THEY?
Up to the 1960s at least English teachers conducted campaigns against the use of they in such contexts as: Everyone has their off days.
In 1974 Robert Eagleson conducted a series of usage tests in Sydney to see how much support remained for he in a universal or indefinite context and how effective the efforts of teachers had been (‘Anyone for his’ in Working Papers in Language and Linguistics (1976) 4: 31–45). One area investigated was the use of pronouns in the environment of question tags, for example:
Somebody showed her the way, didn’t … ?
In tests in which 95 informants had to write their answers, 87% favoured they. In 2 items in the test, of the 190 potential occurrences, 168 were they, 7 were he or she, 1 was one, and 1 was an aberrant we. Very much to the point, most of the answers with he, she, or one were produced by graduate teachers or lecturers of English. Even so, there was regular support for he only among 20% of the English teachers: 80% of the teachers never used he or she.
These findings have been confirmed by a recent survey conducted by the Dictionary Research Centre at Macquarie University (Australian Style (December 1994) 3: 1: 13-14). Again, the use of they with everyone and anyone was strongly preferred overall, and with the under 25 age group reached 98%. However, older participants, especially those in the 65+ group, were less supportive, perhaps still feeling the chastisements of school lessons. The results are unmistakable, however: there is a widespread acceptance of they.
Both studies concentrated on single sentences, for instance, A doctor has a responsibility of care to … patients. Higher scores in favour of they might well have been obtained if participants had been confronted with several consecutive sentences, such as:
If a person was asked to define a zebra, he or she could do this quite efficiently without calling up a whole ‘zoo’ or ‘safari’ frame. But if he or she overheard someone talking about a zebra seen in London earlier in the day, then he or she could go deeper into his or her memory, and call up a zoo frame, which would allow him or her to fit the narrative into a predicted set-up.
We may be prepared to accept a sole use of he or she but in a string of sentences it becomes far too cumbersome and they is by far the happier solution. (They was actually used by the author of these sentences, Jean Aitchison, Professor of Language and Communication, Oxford University.)
That we are not exaggerating the continued—and increasing—use of they is evidenced by the range of examples in these pages. They all come from written—not speech—texts and from a wide variety of sources.
|Literary critic||It is therefore the first duty of any teacher of literature to give their pupils a chance of enjoying it. – The Times|
|Political commentator||… further amendments which will outlaw discrimination against a person because of the identity of their husband or wife. – The Australian|
|Education commentator||A mission statement that is sufficiently bland to encompass everyone’s conception of their role. Daedalus|
|University||This certificate lists the four courses for which the student was registered, showing both grade assessments of their work over the year and grades for their examination performance. – University of London|
|If somebody earns $40 000 a year we would expect them to pay for their course. – a Vice-Chancellor|
|Linguist||To turn to badness, someone bad commits anti-social actions, is aware that their actions are anti-social and could control their behaviour if they wished. – Words in the Mind|
|Critic||The poem exists if everyone who finds it finds themselves in it. – The Listener|
|Financial and legal|
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|Financial Planning brochure||For example, to set up a protective trust for a child who may not be able to look after their own affairs.|
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|Proxy form||I want the person l’ve named below to be my proxy …
Surname of the member who will vote for me
Their initials Their membership number
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