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BONUS VIDEO – The singular they

You may have been hearing a lot about the "singular they" recently. But what is it? How does it work, what is its history, and is it grammatical? Let's find out. 

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user trek
    This was an interesting addressing of the history of grammatic shifting. I wondered, though, if this stems partly from the English language's lack of masculine, feminine, and neuter cases as well as from patriarchal chauvinism?
    (100 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user David Rheinstrom
      I reckon it's six of one, half a dozen of the other, Trek; although I also blame the 18th-century Latinists for trying to drag English back towards an ancestry it never possessed. This isn't to say that I bear ill will towards Latinists; in fact, I can think of one individual (who Never Forgets To Be Awesome) who studied Latin whom I quite respect and appreciate! ;)
      (81 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Is Castrejon
    Anyone notice he didn't say: "Hello Grammarians!" ?
    (44 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Rulereve
    At David said that if the gender is unknown that it is elegant to call such a person a "they". If you don't know the gender of something wouldn't it be appropriate to refer to the unknown thing as a it? As in the sentence " It is a really pretty wolf."
    (15 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user nyxx
    So singular they is more like a non-binary pronoun nowdays??
    (10 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user elijah.grandeur
    the reason it made sense to me if "they" is used with indefinite pronoun is because the number of ppl
    referred to is unknown right? so it bares the possibility that we are referring to multiple ppl at the same time therefore we use the plural pronoun "they"
    i don't think a person could claim to be referred to as "they" the same way we refer to indefinite pronoun since indefinite pronouns are ... well "not definite" both in gender and number ...
    you can't tell if its plural or singular with the pronoun "they"
    but you can with s/he
    so why not just use that instead when addressing somebody whose gender is unknown, its more accurate and it evades the problems you have with "they" as to be confused with the plural one
    especially since the use of "singular they" is no more tied to indefinite pronouns
    it kind of makes sense if its used with indefinite pronouns but its not used that way most of the time, and that is what doesn't make sense to me
    (9 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Welcome to Khan Academy, Elijah. I note that this is the first post you ever made.
      Singular "they" is a way that we get around one of the deficiencies of the English language, which is a gender-neutral pronoun. It just doesn't exist in English. So, the use may offend against grammar, but to call someone by a gender with which he or she (they) doesn't identify is another kind of offensive.

      As for me and my house, we'd rather offend against grammar rules than against human beings.
      (16 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Rodrigo
    Why not use "one" when talking about someone of unknown gender?
    (8 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user archisasa1
    I find several cases in which people use a generic she, instead of the generic he or the singular they.
    How frequent is the use of the "singular they", in rapport to "generic she" or "generic he"?
    (6 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user signoramuller
      I come from Italy: me and my parents went on talking about "negri", without any intent of offending anyone, for a long long time until few yeas ago: it was only identifying people coming from Africa, like "Indians" was our word for "native Americans".
      I think that people can be racist, or anyhow discriminating, using "polite" words, and can be "rights defending" using he/she in an inappropriate way.
      We look at "politically correct" as an "hypocrisy", moreover when facts show evidence of effective discrimination, instead of virtual correctness.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user juansnymangamerx777
    it feels so weird reading all these comments realizing it was 8 years ago and i was like 6 or seven back then and these people who left these comments are grown ups now living their live i really hope i remember this exact comment in like 10 years from now and seeing allot of new comments of saying how long ago this one was
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user averycurtis
    these are soooo much fun 😁🤪
    (6 votes)
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  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Reese
    Would it be correct to refer to someone who doesn't identify as "he", "she", or even "they" as "it"?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] So you may have been hearing a lot of talk about this thing called singular they recently not knowing entirely what it is or whether or not it's okay to use in a sentence or in formal writing. Um, it's been in the news a lot lately, you know we're seeing publications like The Washington Post and The Economist putting it into their style guides. It was the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year in 2015 but like what is it, and is it okay to use? I know that I got dinged all the time for using "they" as a singular pronoun in papers in high school, along with "is," I got in a lot of trouble for using "is," which would always be circled. Some teachers of mine just really hated "is." I get it now, it's kind of weak but anyway we're not talking about that today, we're talking about they, singular they. So they is more commonly known as the plural third person pronoun in English so if we say, you know, Rolando and Phil go to the park we can switch out Rolando and Phil and say they go to the park, and that's one usage of they but you may have also seen sentences that look like this. Like, "When a journalist files a story they should always "make sure their sources check out," or "Anyone will tell you the truth if you "ask them the right questions," and you may have noticed that these sentences use the word "they" to agree with a singular antecedent like journalist or anyone. Now for some of you, you might not have noticed and for some of you, you might have, your immediate reaction might have been, oh wait, eh, let me get my red pen but before you do, in order to explain the context and the history around this usage, around singular they, I would like for a moment to talk about "you." Not you the person, you the person are a vast unknowable ocean but I mean you the pronoun and how weird and transgressive and transformative it is. In many languages today there are second person pronouns for both singular and plural usage. In French, for example, we'd say tu for singular you and vous for plural you. Tu to one person, vous to many. There's also a social distinction here that was once more pronounced, where you'd say vous to social superiors and tu to close friends. Now in those languages the vous form is formal and the tu form is informal. You're addressing someone you don't know very well, you use vous. You're addressing your best buddy, you use tu. All of this is to say that English used to have the same distinction so this kind of lines up with tu and vous. Once upon a time the singular second person subject form was thou, the object form of the singular was thee. The plural second person subject form was ye or ye and the object form was you. This is where you comes in, all right, and so we, it's funny because we think of thee and thou as being more fancy and formal but really it was the opposite way, this was the informal and ye and you was the formal. Now you may recall from our video on who versus whom that I said whom was on its way out of the language. Its usage is being overtaken by who, it is now usually permissible to use who as an object, as in the song Who Do You Love by Bo Diddley. Well the same thing that's happening to whom happened to ye. Over the years its function decreased as "you" took over, it took on a subject and object role as well as singular and plural functions but it was still reserved for the highborn, it was the polite form of address used for addressing social superiors. So even though there's only one king you would refer to that king as "you" because apparently he was better than you. He wasn't, but we'll get to that. But something marvelous happened in English, the social distinction between you and thou fell away and you overtook thou and its subject form thee so now for both the singular and the plural, for the informal and the formal, for the subject and the object, all we have here is you, you, you and you. It would be as if I, me and we were all replaced by us, I cannot emphasize how revolutionary this is! In English you address a king and a peasant with the same address, under the language they are equal. Mind you the existence of a single form of direct address did not annihilate class distinctions or prejudice in the English-speaking world but it is no longer possible to encode a power relationship in English in the very specific way it once was. I cheer this development, I think it's awfully democratic and affirming of the principle that all human beings are worthy of respect, which brings us to "they." This didn't really used to be a problem in English composition, people were writing sentences like, "Everybody has their failing, "you know, and everybody has a right to do what they like with their own money," which is a Jane Austen quote by the way from Northanger Abbey. Austen used this construction, Chaucer used this construction, Shakespeare used this construction, C.S. Lewis used this construction, these are the people that we look to as paragons of correctness and of style in English literature, and they used this form without any compunctions. There is a class of grammarians who thought it would be a great idea to make English adhere to Latin grammar rules, which is where we get silly language superstitions like the prohibition on ending sentences with prepositions, making it ungrammatical to say a sentence like, "He's a guy you can rely on," or spreading the spurious rumor that you couldn't split an English infinitive, as in, you know, to boldly go. These are falsehoods and they are confusing and they are needless, pompous class markers and defeating them, and making you feel more comfortable with English is why I got into this profession in the first place. Anyway, that group of grammarians, that group decided that when speaking of a generic person we should say "he," a hypothetical person in a sentence was always "he" on the grounds that according to 16th century grammarian William Lily, "The masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine," so you'd be, you'd get sentences that began "Any judge worth his salt," or "Anyone that would say that is out of his mind," which presumably was supposed to refer to anyone. Now for centuries arguments raged over whether or not the generic "he" erased women from consideration and now with the benefit of hindsight we can say of course it did! The generic "he" isn't generic. When referring to a person whose gender is unknown or undefined by he or she, it is elegant to call such a person "they," as opposed to the ungainly "he or she" or she, like s/he, which on their own look alright but in context and especially when they're repeated tend to get a little clunky and distracting. What happened to the word "you" is happening to "they," the plural is expanding into the realm of the singular again. The language is changing because that's what languages do, and now this is something that's already done unconsciously, you see it in literature, you see it in the Bible, in formal as well as informal speech. But formalizing this understanding is what undergirds the decisions of The Economist and The Washington Post to start using singular they formally. Like if you had to ask me right now, "David, is singular they grammatical?" I'd say it's as grammatical as "you" but yeah, this is some of the context of singular they. This is where it comes from, this is why it's used, this is what it's replacing, it's replacing this generic "he" and this kind of a clunky "she or he." You can learn anything, David out.