They, Them, and Theirs Walked into an Essay: Was the noun they were replacing singular or plural?


When Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla first hit Saturday morning TV in the early 1970s, determining pronoun usage was  pretty straightforward. The pronouns he, she and it were used in place of a singular noun as were his, him, her, hers, and its (but never it’s which is a conjunction meaning it is). They, them, and theirs were used in place of plural nouns.

When a writer used a pronoun to replace a male noun (Dick), then he, him, or his would be used. Similarly, she, her, and hers took the place of a female noun (Jane). If the gender was not known (as in the case of our hypothetical writer), then the standard was to use a male pronoun. Just in case, you know, the person was male and might be offended by being referred to with a female pronoun? Because it’s all what we secretly want to be anyway? The serious answer is more complex than we can delve into in this post.  Suffice to say that history, culture, and tradition all deemed it so. If you really want to know more about why, comment below, and I can point you toward some good, educational sources.

In the past 30-40 years, history, culture, and tradition have had a falling out of sorts–at least when it comes to pronoun usage.  It’s now no longer good enough to just assume people of undetermined gender (meaning you don’t know because you aren’t referencing a specific person) are male.  For a short period (but one that seemed way too long), the correction for this was to write “he or she” every time you needed to use a singular pronoun and didn’t know the gender.  Then we had the ever so stylistic “s/he” period that thankfully never quite caught on. In informal writings and in spoken text, people have been using they, them or theirs as a singular pronoun for years. English class golden girl, Emily Dickinson, was writing about this as well as why death was kind enough to stop for her back in 1881. Staunch grammarians, however, held out against this.

Added to the idea that using male pronouns as a standard default is a sexist practice is the understanding that gender isn’t always a binary construction as our former use of pronouns would suggest. Not everyone identities strictly as male/female.  Also, some people who read as one gender (meaning if you look at them you perceive them to be either male or female) or “pass” may actually identify as the opposite gender.  If we are not among this group, this presents us with the problem of trying to write about others in an accurate and non-demeaning way. For those in that situation, it presents them with the challenge of being misrepresented or not recognized by their language.

One solution to this is to use “x” at the end of a word or title which usually denotes gender when the person does not clearly identify with one gender or the other or you wish to be more inclusive.  Therefore, you have Latinx instead of Latina or Latino or you have Mx. instead of the title Ms.

Another solution is to adopt the practice of using they, them, and theirs as a singular pronoun.  We can do that now. The Washington Post deems it so. I know, your 8th grade English teacher probably told you it was wrong.  But, who can argue with the Oxford English Dictionary which says we can do this and really have been all along since the 16th century? The American Dialect Society even made they as a singular pronoun their word of the year in 2015.

So, all of this means that they, them, and theirs are fair game to use as singular pronouns in your writing, right?  Yeah…about that…

There are still several people who feel this is incorrect. And when I say feel, I mean they have all the feels about this. Unless you’ve witnessed it first hand, you have no idea how emotive people can become about pronouns. Who knew, right?

Image result for all the feels meme

Anyway, you may know some of these people, and some of them may even be teaching your classes and grading your work. A simple way to figure out if you should be doing this (assuming your instructor hasn’t made it clear already) would be to simply ask them. But, teachers and students talking…what is that, right?

In that case, your safest option (grade-wise) is to find a way to work around doing this. Here are some tips to help with that:

  1. Use he or she as a phrase to replace the noun. This is still the preference of people who are unwavering in their stance that you must use one or the other.  It works okay as long as you don’t have several instances of it in your paper and it becomes cumbersome to get through. Just as with any other word or phrase, repetition can be effective or okay–or it can cross the line into tedious and obtrusive which is never good.
  2. Use either he or she when the gender is undetermined, but don’t use one or the other exclusively throughout your paper. Don’t interchange them randomly so that your reader becomes confused.  So, if you are referring to a hypothetical student or patient in your paper, always use the same pronoun to refer to that student or patient, but when you have another one, use the other pronoun.  This helps avoid the problem of sexist language and the obtrusiveness of he or she, but it doesn’t solve the problem of gender neutrality.
  3. Rephrase your sentence so that the pronoun is not needed.  I did this above.  When I wrote, ” When a writer used a pronoun to replace a male noun (Dick), then he, him, or his would be used. Similarly, she, her, and hers took the place of a female noun (Jane),” what I had originally written was “When a writer replaced a male noun (Dick) with a pronoun, he would use…” But then, I realized by using he as the default, I was making the presumption the writer was male which I didn’t want to do. But, in this case, just inserting she to avoid that didn’t seem to be the right choice either because it was a practice that writers of both genders would have been expected to do. So, just one or the other would have been inaccurate. Sometimes, rephrasing your sentence is an easy fix. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t really work because what you come up with is wordy and cumbersome.
  4. Change the noun to plural and use a plural pronoun.  This doesn’t always work, but sometimes it works quite well.  For example, if we look at the same passage in #3, I could have just said “When writers replaced male nouns  with pronouns, they…” If the number is undetermined, this works.  If, however, the noun has to be singular, then it’s inaccurate to change it to a plural form just so your sentence is grammatically correct.

Personally, I would advocate for you just having a brief conversation with your instructor about this. Heck, just shoot them an email or a text if they text students.  Because, come on, when has trying to guess at how to make someone who you don’t really know happy ever worked out so great?  Usually, it just leads to more of the feels.

Image result for all the feels meme

Most instructors like talking to students. Especially those that care about their work–which you would be showing them you do in this case, right? Yep.  And think of the work you could save yourself.  You might just find that your instructor doesn’t have a preference or is glad we are finally recognizing this thing we have been doing all along as valid.


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