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How Can They Be Singular?
Which of the following sentences is incorrect: A) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his senses. B) It’s enough to drive anyone out of his or her senses. C) It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.
Those who consider themselves “old school” would likely consider C incorrect: their is plural but its antecedent, anyone, is singular. Most traditionalists would consider B the best sentence (despite the clunky his or her), although they would
reluctantly accept A also.
We consider ourselves traditionalists too. But after looking long and hard at the overwhelming evidence, we cannot in good conscience say that C is
“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their
senses” was written by the celebrated playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw. But Shaw was no outlier when it came to the so-called
Oscar Wilde: “Experience is the name everybody gives to their mistakes.” Henry Fielding: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they
help it?” Shakespeare: “God send everyone their heart’s desire.” The King James Bible: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem
others better than themselves.”
Even despite these eminent writers’ words, we know that many of you are adamant that the plural pronoun they and its variants should never
be used with singular antecedents. Perhaps you will reconsider after hearing from the language scholars.
• From A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans: “The use of they in speaking of
a single individual is not a modern deviation from classical English. It is found in the works of many great writers.”
• British editor Tom Freeman: “Singular ‘they’ is over 600 years old, going back into Middle English. Great writers have used it,
including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Defoe, Byron, Thackeray and Shaw.”
• The American Heritage Dictionary: “Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured
that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage.”
• The irascible Tom Chivers, writing in London’s daily Telegraph: “If someone tells you that singular ‘they’ is
wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.”
So do we recommend the singular they? In fact we loathe it. You will never see the singular they in our blog posts. We stand with the
English scholar Paul Bryan, who says in Common Errors in English Usage: “It is wise to shun this popular pattern in formal writing.”
And we admire the passion of the writer Jen Doll: “Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches … The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly.”
Yes. The singular they might not be incorrect, but “not incorrect” is no one’s idea of an impressive credential.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.