The Singular They/Their

“Alright what asshole tried to pay their tab with arcade tokens?”

See? Right there. We already use the singular they when one’s gender is unknown.

Yet I still hear from people that it’s not grammatically correct (GC police alert). And I’ll admit, it feels a little weird using they in the singular when the person is known.

But here’s the thing. Language is a living, breathing thing. It’s constantly evolving over time. So I’ll only entertain arguments against this subject from people who insist on speaking solely in Old English.

For that matter, the word you was originally plural. Thou is the proper singular. It was similar to the French tu (second person singular) versus vous (second person plural). This is why the word you gets followed by the plural conjugation of “to be” (are).

Thus, I am. She is. He is. And yet, you are. They are. We are.

History Lesson!

Thou was actually dropped from our language due to being perceived as rude (alright, who were the special snow flakes?).

After the Norman Invasion of England in the 11th Century, England’s nobility was replaced with predominantly french speaking Norman nobility.

This is the reason for the host of Old French loanwords in the English language, mostly in the areas of government, military, and other areas the new nobility were keen to discuss.

The second person pronouns thou and you were among the retained English words. However, the Normans ended up mainly using thou when showing familiarity or when being otherwise informal, and you mainly when being formal and showing respect.

This would have been similar to the French usage of tu in the informal and vous in the formal.

But once thou became used even in formal situations to show disrespect, it was dropped from the language and you ended up being used for all forms of the 2nd person pronoun.

Medieval nobility were kind of known for this sort of thing. They’re also where we get the word villain, which was borrowed from the Old French vilain, to denote one who works on a villa. In other words, a farmhand. However, once the concept of chivalry became big with knights, the implication was that unchivalrous acts were carried out solely by vilains, which by this point referred to serfs and peasants pretty generally (they’re all the same, right?).

 

In any case, language evolves as we do. Otherwise we’d still be speaking Old English. So the next time someone tells you that “they” can’t be used in the singular, just assume they’re a medieval LARPer or something and tell them “thou art right.”

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