There has been some recent discussion regarding the use of the pronoun ‘they’ (instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’) by people who want to be viewed as gender neutral. It is interesting to consider this discussion in the context of the changing use of pronouns over time.
Pronouns take the place of a noun (see tables below) and are used to avoid the repetition of names or descriptions. Subject pronouns are used to indicate who or what is performing the action (I, he, we – I went to the shop). Object pronouns are used to indicate who is affected by the action (me, him, us – Mother gave it to him). Possessive pronouns are used to show ownership (my, his, our – Dad drove his car). There are also demonstrative pronouns (this, these), interrogative pronouns (which, who), reciprocal pronouns (each other), relative pronouns (which, where), independent possessive pronouns (mine, ours), and reflexive and intensive pronounces (myself, himself).
Gendered pronouns help differentiate between speakers or objects in a sentence. In English we use ‘she’ and ‘her’ to refer to females, ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’ to refer to males, and ‘it’ and ‘its’ to refer to non-humans (e.g., objects, animals). However, we do have a tendency to give inanimate objects gender (think of ships). Niger-Congo languages acknowledge 7 to 10 genders, while Algonquian languages don’t use gender markers at all.
In the 13th century, ‘they’ was used as a singular pronoun and is evident in Chaucer’s, Caxton’s and Shakespeare’s writing. Similarly, ‘you’ which we currently use as both a singular and plural pronoun, was originally only a plural pronoun. Intriguingly, ‘yous’ is becoming increasingly common in everyday language to indicate the plural form. The singular form of ‘you’ was ‘thou’ and ‘your’ was ‘thee’.
In the 1850s, grammarians proposed that ‘he’ be used as the gender nonspecific pronoun rather than ‘they’, but, as you can imagine, because of the patriarchal implications it was met with a lot of resistance!
In fact, using the plural pronoun ‘they’ for a singular meaning is actually very common in spoken, and increasingly written, English in situations where we do not want to distinguish between gender or gender is irrelevant and/or because of the cumbersome nature of using the structure his/her or s/he. Consider, for example, the following sentences:
A student should be rewarded for their effort.
If a person is abusive, we should report them.
That child was late. They’re going to be in trouble.
Language is fascinating!