Grammar Guerrilla: Pronoun Primer

In yet another indicator that the West is collapsing, Webster’s Dictionary has apparently named they, used to designate a particular, non-gendered person, the word of 2019. This seems to call for a quick refresher on basic grammar:

There are two kinds of pronouns, those that stand for one person (the singular) and those that stand for more than one person (plural). It can be a little more complex than this but this general rule is true.

Singular Personal Pronouns

  1. First person singular: I. “I am going to the store.”
  2. Second person singular: You. “You are going to the store with me.”
  3. Third person singular: He/She/It. “He is going to the store after me.” “She is going to the store too.” “It never fails. When I go to the store the parking lot is crowded.”

Plural Personal Pronouns

  1. First person plural: We. “We went to the store.”
  2. Second person plural: You. “You [all] went to the store with him.”
  3. Third person plural: They. “They were late and missed the trip to the store.”

They is used to stand for a plural subject. Multiple people are implied in they. I, you, he, she, and it are all singular. One person at a time is implied. Obviously there is an ambiguity with you since it can be singular or plural. We infer which is meant from the context. We is unambiguously plural.

Until very recently, they stood for a plural subject. How recently? The standard reference work on the English language, perhaps the greatest reference work of all time, The Oxford English Dictionary, reports the first usage of they to refer to a non-gendered singular subject dates to the first Obama administration (2009).

The first definition given in the OED for they reads: “ The subjective case of the third person plural pronoun; the plural of he, she, or it.” It has been used that way since c. 1175, in Middle English (post-1066), the first use recorded in the OED. The entry records the sentence: “ They goo aboute to fykkle [flatter] with Iryshe men“ in the State Papers of Henry VIII from 1537.

I am aware of the claim that the non-gendered use of they for a singular subject occurred in the 16th century. I doubt this claim. They has long been used for collective singular subjects, i.e., a group treated as a unit. This usage dates to the late 14th century. In 1548 century one finds this: “ Every one visered himselfe, so that they were vnknowen.” In this case they refers not to an ungendered singular person but to a collective singular.

The OED does give a usage that is similar but not identical to the usage that appeared in 2009:

With an antecedent referring to an individual generically or indefinitely (e.g. someone, a person, the student), used esp. so as to make a general reference to such an individual without specifying gender. Cf. he pron. 2b.
In the 21st century, other th– pronouns (and the possessive adjective their) are sometimes used to refer to a named individual, so as to avoid revealing or making an assumption about that person’s gender; cf. sense A. 2c, and quots. 2008 at their adj. 2b, 2009 at them pron. 4b, 2009 at themself pron. 2b.

First, some of the instances quoted seem to be closer to the collective singular than to a non-gendered individual. E.g., from 1877, “I am never angry with anybody unless they deserve it.” This is a class of people, not a particular individual. Other uses given under this heading are attempts to avoid using he generically. Second, there is a difference between not specifying the grammatical gender of the subject (or object) because it is immaterial and requiring the speaker or writer to apply the plural pronoun when there is plainly a single individual before him (this is the generic use of the masculine pronoun, by the way).

The three instances, given in the OED, that unambiguously use they to refer to non-gendered individuals come from 2009, 2013, and 2019. It should surprise no one that the first use occurred on Twitter, that engine of social and linguistic destruction.

Some of this comes from the application of grammatical categories to human sexuality. With the exception of an tiny number of persons, humans belong to one of two biological sexes. Humans do not have a gender biologically speaking. Gender is a grammatical category which can be relatively arbitrary (e.g., applying feminine pronouns to ships) but is not always so. We recognize the male sex with masculine pronouns and the female sex with feminine pronouns. There are no neuter persons—we have a singular non-gendered pronoun: it. Why they instead of it?

The late-modern, non-gendered use of they in place of the singular pronoun is political, ungrammatical, unclear, and unnecessary. “They is coming for dinner” is nonsense. Consider:

Joe: They are coming over.
Mary: Who?
Joe: They.
Mary: Who are they?
Joe. Patricia.
Mary: Who else is coming?
Joe: Just Patricia.

This is a recipe for endless confusion. Grammatically, in this case, the clearest pronoun is she. To use they is obnoxious.

Pronouns are not a matter of mere preference. They are not arbitrary. There is a genuine relation between the sign, he and the thing signified, Joe. In that sense, we do not choose pronouns. We are born with them. They are related to the nature of things, to the way things are in nature.

The function of a personal pronoun is to relieve the writer or speaker from having to repeat the proper name of the subject or object. “Joe went to the store. Then Joe went to the dentist. After that Joe went to the gym.” This is ungainly but the only alternative to abusing they is to resort to the proper name. This is what will happen if the revolutionaries are allowed to force us all to speak or write nonsense.

The attempt to revolutionize the language by force (e.g., government agencies punishing people for refusing to use preferred pronouns, even when the pronouns make no sense) demonstrates how weak is the case for their use. The revolutionaries have not made the case for their use or for why we should abandon near a millennium of usage. They could not make that case so they resorted to the power of the unelected little soviets (the councils that terrorized Russians and countless others under Communism) in blue cities and on university campuses to achieve the outcome.

The reader might be tempted to throw up his hands but this argument is a proxy for the argument about the existence of givenness. To the degree that is true, this debate is not just about grammar but about nature.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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5 comments

  1. Thank you. I was reading an article the other day and was very confused until the third or fourth paragraph when I figured out that “they” meant “he” in the context. It was very annoying and not a little bit disheartening. I, for one, will never use “they” for “he” or “she,” even if I am burned at the stake for it.

  2. Thank you for your grammatical and historical post on this subject.

    It’s interesting that in languages which are far more “gendered” than ours — Spanish, for example, where virtually all nouns have a grammatical gender of male or female, and standard traditional grammar used the male gender for collective uses if even only a single male was present in a group of men and women — the gender-neutral people are being forced to invent new terms such as “Latinx” to avoid saying “Latinos” or “Latino” or “Latina.”

    English is **ALREADY** fairly gender neutral compared to most languages. The term “Hispanic” in English has no gender. That isn’t true of lots of other languages.

    Language does change, and if this gender-neutral stuff becomes more than a passing fad, we’re probably going to be forced to come up with some sort of “gender neutral” pronoun — something comparable to “Ms.” as an addition to Miss, Mrs. and Mr. — to avoid constructions in which we truly don’t know if a person is male or female and want to avoid sentences such as “Will you please tell the secretary that she can come in now?” if we don’t know if the secretary is male or female.

    However, eliminating he/she entirely, and using the third-person plural rather than the third-person singular, adds confusion to the language more than it avoids offense.

    • Some are already pushing the use of “Mx.” for the purpose mentioned above. To me, this is additional evidence of the mx-up in thought processes.

      “Will you please tell the secretary to come in now” avoids the difficulty but requires some deliberate formation of sentence structure that likely does not come naturally.

  3. If I taught speech communications at some university I’d be pulling my hair out. Beyond even this abuse of a pronoun, I’d inform the class on the very first day that any use of ValSpeak, UpTalk, or vocal fry during an oral presentation would result in an automatic failing grade for the semester. Of course, I would probably have been fired long ago.

    Come to think of it, toss the use of “so” when beginning a reply to a question into prohibited list, as well.

  4. This all goes to show how narcissistic and downright provincial our feminist and sexaul revolutionary movements are.

    I spent a good portion of my adult life in the Far East, sometimes work as a Chinese-English translator or translation editor, and have also studied and used Thai. Traditionally, none of the Sinitic or Kradai (the language family to which Thai, Lao, Shan, Zhuang, and a number of others belong) gendered their pronouns, yet their speakers could still be as male-exalting sexist as anyone who speaks an Indo-European or Semitic language.

    Oddly enough, in the wake of the May 4th Movement of 1919, Chinese adopted 他,她,and 它 for “he”, “she”, and “it” respectively (although all are pronounced ta) to imitate the supposedly more “progressive” West with its highly gendered languages (earlier, only the first was used as the third person singular pronoun).

    I currently teach ESOL. For some odd reason, nobody seem,s to gripe when we address “Padres Estimados” to a group of Spanish-speaking parents including both fathers and mothers.

    We really ought to resist this thing about changing pronouns and expose it for the folly that it is.

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