Singular They is Grammatical, Get Over It

Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, every single English speaker including contrarian grammarians: What do all these people have in common? They all use “singular they.” Singular they, or using the pronoun “they” to refer to a single person of unknown or non-meaningful gender- “Someone’s at the door, can you let them in?”- is a normal part of the English language and has been since the earliest times. For some reason, some grammarians seem to think this is controversial. (Do I sound biased? Sue me, this argument is dumb.)

Pictured: the opinion of a dullard. Right is wrong, wrong is right, clunky and awkward is grammatically correct, we have always been at war with Eastasia…

We don’t really need anything other than the simple fact that English speakers use singular they to prove that singular they is part of the English language. (I mean, duh.) Nevertheless, arguments have been constructed to distract from this reality. There are a lot of these arguments, each dumber than the last, but one of them in particular is relevant to this course. Some people claim that singular they is confusing, and interferes with normal comprehension of language. This is a testable claim that cognitive methods can address!

And addressed it has been.

The date is March 1997. The authors: Julie Foertsch and Morton Ann Gernsbacher. The article: In Search of Gender Neutrality: Is Singular They a Cognitively Efficient Substitute for Generic HeOur intrepid researchers used a response time paradigm to investigate the ease of processing of clauses containing generic pronouns: he, she, and they. That is, they had sentences like this:

  • A truck driver should never drive when sleepy, even if (he/she/they) may be struggling to make a delivery on time, because many accidents are caused by drivers who fall asleep at the wheel.

which they presented one clause at a time, asking the participants to press a button when they were done reading the clause to advance to the next. The first clause contains a reference to some person of unknown gender, the second clause contains a pronoun referring to that person, and the last clause is filler.

Presumably, if singular they were not an accepted way of handling singular persons of unknown gender, the sentences using they would take longer to read than the sentences with generic he (an inexplicable favorite of a particularly crusty- and sexist- sort of grammarian). The sentences vary with the gender stereotype of the person described, in four categories: stereotypically male, like truck driver; stereotypically female, like nurse; neutrally gendered, like runner; and utterly genderless or indefinite, like “anybody.” Here’s how the numbers break down by category:

graph1

As you can see, when the antecedent- the noun that the pronoun refers to- is masculine, they performs about as well as he and better than she; when the antecedent is feminine, it performs about as well as she and better than he; when it’s neutral, they’re all about equal; and when the antecedent is indefinite, they outperforms either of the other options. That is, in all categories it’s tied for quickest to read, except for one category where it’s unambiguously the fastest-parsing option.

Conclusion: People find nothing exceptional about using they to refer to a single person of unknown or non-meaningful gender. If there was anything irregular about using they in those contexts, you’d see they being outperformed by the “grammatically correct” alternative options.

What I would have liked to have seen in this study is a comparison between the reading times for they and the reading times for the monstrosity “he or she”- I have a strong instinct that he or she is a provably bad option, despite being recommended by grammarians. The reason why has to do with the cognitive structures posited for language use. He, she, and they are all single words, the simplest sort of phrase.  He or she is two such phrases, joined together into a larger, more complex phrase by a conjunction. This more complex cognitive structure- a conjoined phrase- we would expect to take longer to parse than a simpler structure.