Those of all political and cultural persuasions will be delighted to hear the exciting news. The old pronoun they, apparently re-purposed for new duty by the thought police, is not just a new way to hide gender-specific pronoun and possessive uses like he and she, him and her. In fact they was the word used by writers for singular and plural, men and women, group and collective, from as early as 1386 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare himself used the singular pronoun they in Hamlet in 1599 and elsewhere. So it’s not new. It’s old.
The customary he/him/his usage referring to gender-unspecified people reveals an uncharacteristic flaw in the otherwise compendious and encompassing English language coverage. There are phrases in English that sound wrong, having forced writers from an active to a passive voice or back simply because the pronouns available don’t fit the sentence constructions required. Writers have to use clunky phrases incorporating “he or she” or, worse still, “he/she”. It’s a systemic error making the convention unfit for purpose.
The change from practical, easy and common sense to impractical, awkward and masculine started from the publication of the first English grammar book back in 1745 by Ann Fisher, an English schoolmistress and entrepreneur. “A New Grammar”, ran to 31 editions over five decades. It was the first to stipulate that the pronoun set he/him/his should apply for both sexes. Apart from this calamity, it was full of sensible and practical grammatical guidance that helped to liberate English grammar from centuries of Latin grammatical presumption.
The idea of using he/him/his for everything was slow to catch on and not widely used until the nineteenth century. Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and others continued to use they and them as singulars in their books.
Pacing fast forward to the twenty-first century, large companies and organizations, government bodies and many contemporary writers now accept and use they with an indefinite pronoun as an option because it suggests the sexless entity that they wish to describe (whether for legal, political or literary reasons), and find the singular they/them/their more acceptable in their contexts.
They/them/there as a multipurpose bisexual pronoun is coming back into fashion, just as waistcoats, bell bottoms, sideburns, and Dorothy bags have done, often more than once. It’s less ‘Hello? Quo Vadis?’ and more ‘Hello again. Long time no see. Where have you been?’ As ever, the political lens maintains a focus that is too narrow for the preservation of its literary culture.
It’s therefore only a matter of time before the practice of using they as a singular pronoun returns decisively to standard English. That is, until the next tide in the moving waves of the language.