by Bonnie Smiler
In a February 2018 blog I questioned when the pronoun they and its relatives their and them became singular pronouns. Had I bothered checking at the time, perhaps I would have discovered it was first documented back in the fourteenth century. In later years William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and William Makepeace Thackeray, among others, all used them in a non-plural manner.
I use the word “perhaps” for the research because Merriam Webster recently declared the singular they as the 2019 Word of the Year, which put it in the news. The American Dialect Society named they the Word of the Decade for 2010-2019. There are currently many websites offering discussions on the etymology of they, how to correctly use it, and the gender or non-gender reasons for its popularity. They’s current claim to fame is that it is needed as a pronoun reference for nonconforming binary gender identity, but the truth is that it is used as a singular pronoun no matter what the gender.
You should know that there is a very common precedent for the plural/singular double duty, and you is the prime example (that does sound ungrammatical, but in this case it’s necessary). You was originally plural, but as we eventually dropped all its other singular and plural forms, such as ye, thee, and thou, you became both singular and plural though using the plural agreement of the verb no matter how many of you there are, e.g. you are, you were.
I had originally titled this blog “The Gramma Queen eats crow,” but after looking at the final sentence of that 2018 blog, “Down the road, if it hasn’t happened already, English writers will consider the singularity of they, them, and their an acceptable convenience and a further step on the simplification of the English language,” maybe I got it right after all!
P.S. If you want to read an informative article on the singular they, I recommend https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/