Grammar Moses: Why 'they' is not a singular pronoun

Posted10/30/2016 7:11 AM

Brian Cleary of Wheaton wrote last month to gab about the issue of personal pronouns. And, really, what better subject matter for chewing the fat with your friends these days?

"In an article about Obama's China, (the reporter) writes how Obama's successor will have to deal with the China problem: 'How he or she deals with it ...' "Isn't that just more words, the extraneous words you warn against, unless your stylebook mandates the use of both pronouns? Even though there's a strong probability that a female will be elected president, that doesn't need to be trumpeted."


Brian probably gives away the endings of movies.

Although "they" is gaining popularity as a gender-neutral pronoun for the transgender community, I am not about to start using it as a general replacement for singular pronouns.

How can I be so insensitive, you ask?

I'm merely being practical.

We come up with new words all of the time. Shakespeare invented words we use today. If we came up with a new word that didn't have an established meaning -- and it was a word that transgender people would embrace -- count me in.

So, what's my objection to "they"?

When you use a singular pronoun, it lets the reader know you're talking about one person. When you use "they" across the board, your audience can get confused about how many people you're talking about -- as well as whether you are talking about someone who has run-of-the-mill gender identification or something different. If that matters.

To me, repurposing an established word is not the answer to expressing gender neutrality.

The Swedes, who have devised a way to provide a delicious meatball lunch and a variety of cost-effective, ready-to-assemble furnishings under one roof, have this problem licked.

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They came up with a gender-neutral personal pronoun -- hen -- that can be used instead of han (he) or hon (she.)

I don't speak Swedish, so I'm shaky on how you'd pronounce the three words to differentiate them. But it works there. In fact, they started flirting with "hen" when I was still in short pants. It's gained widespread acceptance only now during the Obama administration.

Altering quotes

Brian also had a something to say about grammar that appeared in a quote in a story.

"Although it's in a quotation, the statement by Ashley Gruenwald about paraplegic Kelsey Ibach shows the need for examples of good grammar and correct case usage: 'We always get a good response when we get a positive mentor who they can relate to' should have read: 'We always get a good response when we get a positive mentor to whom they can relate."

As for the Ashley Gruenwald quote, I agree it would have been more grammatically correct for Ashley to have avoided ending the sentence with a preposition (though no great sin these days), but I would never alter her quote in that way to make it more grammatically correct.

We routinely change "gonna" to "going to," but that is because those are the words being expressed, albeit slurred.

If you're writing dialogue in a piece of fiction or there is a specific reason you're talking about a regional dialect or something, feel free to approximate the sounds being expressed. Otherwise, the rule of thumb is to express the words themselves.


To alter a quote to make it more grammatically correct is a sin in this business. And to approximate the words people use with sounds such as "gonna," "shoulda" and "couldn't've" would feel like we're mocking the subjects of our stories.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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