The future of singular they

Language Log 2013-03-15

I've recently encountered several people in their teens or early twenties who ask, as individuals, to be referred to as  they/them/their/themself. Looking around to see how common this might be, I found an undated (?) survey reporting the following results:

All in all, over eight hundred people responded, the majority from the US and other English-dominant countries. A few were binary- or cisgendered individuals who left hostile comments (i.e., stating that there was no such thing as gender outside the binary) or answers that indicated confusion as to the purpose of the survey (i.e., identifying themselves as binary-/cisgendered and remarking that they would always accommodate the pronouns requested by another person). Others, despite describing their gender only as one of the binary genders without further comment, also indicated nontraditional pronoun preferences.  […]

“They” was the most preferred pronoun-set for 62.39% of respondents; the second and third were “he” and “she” at 31.39% and 29.73% respectively. (These numbers are not contradictory; about 48% of respondents indicated preference for multiple pronoun-sets).

There are some other indications here and there of movement in the direction of they. People who for one reason or another are unhappy with gendered third-person pronouns have plenty of other options, but none of them seem to be gaining much momentum.

Although singular they is much more natural for English-speakers than ne or ve or ze or ey or xe, it's still not easy to get used to. Despite some experience, I still often misunderstand such references. And I find it hard to remember to use the right pronoun, even if, as one sympathetic young person put it, "They'll be insulted if you call them 'her'".

Could this catch on in general usage, in the way that the merger of thou/you into you did a few hundred years ago? It doesn't seem very likely; but attitudes towards gender and gender roles have changed a lot over the last century, so who knows?

Meanwhile, I'm surprised that there's not yet a band named Singular They.

Update — to clarify something that I failed to prevent several commenters from mistaking — I'm NOT talking about the use of singular they to refer to quantified or indefinite people, as discussed in many earlier LL posts. Rather, the topic is cases where forms of they are used in reference to a specific, definite, known person, as in "Kim helped themself to another piece of cake", or "Sandy said they [meaning Sandy] left their cell phone on the table". Or an exchange like this one: "A: Is Mary coming to dinner? B: No, they texted me to say that they're not feeling well."

We've cited one earlier example of this phenomenon:

Dr Gerald Black has applied for a position of Lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Penzance. I would be grateful if you could provide a reference on their suitability for this post.

But in that example, the pronoun was a decent distance from its antecedent, and might have arisen due to recycling a generic letter template.