Usage Wars: Singular They, Singular Themselves, Generic He

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Can they be used to refer to a single person? What if the person is of unknown gender or is a known person who rejects gender labels like he and she?

Or is he the generic pronoun in all (or most) cases?

Is the reflexive themselves ever used to refer to one person? Or would you use the singular themself, which doesn’t appear in most dictionaries? Or would you go with the generic himself?

My opinions are that the singular they is perfectly acceptable in all (or almost all) cases, either reflexive is fine, and the generic he is and always has been ridiculous.


I use they. I actually used they as referring to an unknown gender long before I realized there were more than two genders. Which made it then easy for me to use it when people close to me came out as NB.

I can’t figure out the themselves/themself thing though. I’m not sure which I like better even, let alone which makes more sense.

I also think this is a very interesting metric in books. I’m writing a series now where, while having more than two genders, female tends to be the dominant one. So even while I use “they” for an unknown, as these books come from a close third person POV, I’m constantly reminding myself to use “she” instead.


I think in the future, the use of “he” and “she” may wind up fading from the English language just as “thou” did. One of the arguments I’ve seen against “they” was using a plural to describe a single person, but “you” already does that. Our singular second-person pronoun already disappeared from common speech, why couldn’t the third-person ones not do the same?


A little off subject: I constantly find it hilarious that people bring up “thou” to be old-timey, not realizing that it was the casual form of “you”. And that “ye olde” was still pronounced “the old”, because “y” was pronounced as “th”.

I love language history. :slight_smile:


Only where the typesetter used the y symbol to represent the thorn letter. Generally speaking, y was still pronounced as a y.


Anyone who says ‘they’ cannot be singular can fight me. And also a whole lot of genderqueer and nonbinary people, and a whole lot of binary trans people who aren’t down for hurting their nonbinary friends, and a whole lot of cis people who aren’t down for hurting their trans friends. We will also throw down over neopronouns such as ey/em, ze/zir, and so forth.

They can also fight a whole lot of other people, starting with Will Shakespeare:

Arise; one knocks […] Hark, how they knock! Who’s there?

That’s Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare isn’t even the earliest English writer to use singular ‘they’. Just a famous one.

Further, contrary to popular belief, pronouns are not gender-specific. Typically ‘she’ is the correct pronoun set for a drag queen when in drag, ‘he’ when not, for example; there are also cis lesbians who use ‘he’. The correct pronoun set is often tangled in with gender euphoria and gender dysphoria, and deliberately using the wrong set is almost always in order to misgender the pronoun referent (which is cool if it’s in service of helping keep a closeted trans person closeted at their request, but not otherwise). But that doesn’t mean the pronouns themselves are gendered, any more than slacks or skirts are; it is all very messy and complicated. Sometimes I wonder if things would be easier for monolingual English speakers if English had grammatical gender outside singular third-person pronouns, because about half of los búhos are female owls and about half of las palomas are male doves, and the vast majority of Mädchens are girls or young women, not agender, neutrois, or otherwise nonbinary or genderqueer people.

\braces for all the Spanish- and/or German-speaking trans people to explain at length how wrong they are\

And because I know people† have said this thing (though I trust no one reading this would), ‘it’ for people who use pronouns other than ‘he’ if the doctor at their birth said they’re male or ‘she’ if etc female is flatly unacceptable and also utterly horrifying, with the sole exception of when used for people who have explicitly stated their correct pronoun set is in fact ‘it’.

Anyone who says that can fight a whole lot of feminists, too, whether the said feminists are trans-affirming or not.

I’ve seen both ‘themselves’ and ‘themself’ in the singular. I prefer the latter, reserving the former for plural instances, as with ‘yourself’ and ‘yourselves’.


† my mother. my mother said this thing. not to me but after I told her my pronouns aren’t what she thought they were.


I can buy that argument if the person making it also habitually uses ‘y’all’ or ‘yinz’ or etc and not plural ‘you’, and if that person also habitually employs ey/em or ze/zir or etc for a singular person of unspecified gender.

Never met anyone like that, though.

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That is the primary argument I see. The claim that they is plural doesn’t really have a leg to stand on since it’s been used as a singular almost since the word first appeared 700 years ago. Like deer, it’s both singular and plural.


I use singular they quite often nowadays. I used to use a generic she before but then I realized that it’s better to use singular they than assume that I know a stranger’s gender. So now I just use they. I also tend to use themselves and not themself, as the latter just hurts my ear and sounds wrong. I’ve never seen themself used, so that just sticks out to me like a sore thumb.

But no, I don’t see or even want to see he as a generic pronoun in any case. For me it just seems a bit patriarchal as if it’s more likely that someone is a male rather than female. I don’t know if that’s a feminist thing to think but personally it just grates me.

I think it’ll be interesting to see how English is going to develop with pronouns. Are she/he going to get rarer and rarer while they gets more common. I’m not that familiar with the history of English as a language, but I guess that must be the case with pretty much anything. One form of speech gets progressively rarer and another replaces it, while the old original may start to sound more achaic. Like thou has more of an archaic feel to it for me.


That’s my feeling. They will become more and more common, eventually usurping he and she.

Not in Modern English, though. The gendered pronouns are entrenched and are in a class of words that resist change, so whatever Neo-Modern English emerges is the best candidate for that happening.

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The other arguments I generally see are either incredibly sexist, transphobic, or just prescriptivist.

Even aliens that do not have the same concept of gender as humans wind up getting slapped with “he” or more rarely, “she”. e.g. the Gethenians from The Left Hand of Darkness, the asari from Mass Effect, etc.


And I’m glad my mother tongue does not have gendered pronouns. Though sometimes I hope there were also a non-gendered honorific (like Japanese san), even more as Finnish doesn’t have anything corresponding to “Ms” (and anyway Mr and Ms are also gender-specific).

And here is where “they” as singular came into effect. We have Shakespeare to thank for a lot of changes in acceptable grammar usage and even some new words and common phrases. Language isn’t a set in stone thing. It changes, morphs, steals from other languages, throws words out altogether. Once it stops doing that, it becomes a dead language, meaning there’s no one left who natively speaks it anymore so it doesn’t have a chance to change. As English is one of the most widespread languages in the world, I suspect changes in accepted grammar, usage, and words will come rapidly over the next several years and decades.

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Meet someone from the South. I live in the Pacific Northwest now but I am born and raised Texan. If I’m referring to a group of people, I won’t use “you.” It’s always “y’all” and possessive is “y’all’s”.


The thing with the generic “he” is exactly this. It comes from centuries of patriarchal societies where women were not considered worth anything more than property. It wouldn’t have been uncommon for women to be referred to as “it” because of being property.

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I like using Shakespeare as a primary example, too, but in this particular case he was just reflecting standard usage, not doing anything that hadn’t been done in literature before him.

Singular they gets used in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales 200 years before Shakespeare. And unlike Shakespeare, who was pretty well known for making up/smashing together concepts to get something that worked for him, Chaucer … didn’t do that. Chaucer wasn’t generally an innovator linguistically. He was a great cataloguer, and he’s known for riffing off of whatever was popular in the day. If Chaucer is using singular they casually — which he did! — then it was because it was normal.

I think there may be even earlier usage of it, but Chaucer is one I can pull out an old textbook and point to. English-using folks have been embracing singular they for a long time!

It’s only when the Victorians started trying to re-latinize our very much diverged-from-Latin language that this was declared verboten, and people started trying to stop other people from using it.

In short, the Victorians are awful.


I grew up on the Gulf Coast (mostly Mississippi, some Florida Panhandle) and that’s largely why I said the “‘they’ is exclusively plural” argument only works if all three of those conditions are met.

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I can’t recall any such instances off the top of my head.

Or just Latinize it. They were sorely embarrassed that their vaunted tongue wasn’t the offspring of Latin or even Greek, but the Germanic language of barbarians!

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I guess we’ve just got to be glad we didn’t wind up with pointlessly gendered nouns like a lot of languages got saddled with. (Is the door male or female? Is the table? Is a pineapple?)