If It Was Good Enough for Shakespeare…

No, I’m not talking about writing with a quill or not having a smartphone, although I guess both of those things were plenty good enough for Shakespeare. This is a matter of grammar. Have you ever been told not to use “they” to refer to a singular person? I think most of us were taught this lesson in school. It’s an old grammar rule, based from Latin, where if you didn’t know the gender of the person you referred to, it was best to default to “he.”


I thought it would be fun to use a kitten picture for my example, and the Internet gifted me this gem. An

I thought it would be fun to use a kitten picture for my example, and the Internet gifted me this gem.
Anyway, let’s say this helpful raccoon found a lost kitten and kindly wants to return the wee thing to its home.  The raccoon might say, “Someone is certainly missing this surprisingly placid little kitten. I hope he finds his lost pet soon.” This avoids using the singular they, and since we do not know if the kitten’s owner is a man or woman, we assume man, as per the rules of old grammarians.
Most people, including this raccoon who is clearly of above average intelligence, would actually say, “Someone must miss this surprisingly placid kitten. I hope they find their lost pet soon.” This uses the singular they, which is considered grammar suicide in some circles, but is still perfectly understandable to everyone.

This rule is just plain silly. It’s sexist, it’s clunky (have you seen it used as s/he? Very messy) and worst of all, it’s pointless. Latin didn’t have a word for singular ‘they’, so it was decided in the late 18th century that English shouldn’t either. For some reason. Because Latin is so marvelous, that’s obviously why everyone is still speaking it.

Fans of the Latin language, please don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me just yet. I understand the academic and sentimental appeal of classical languages. In spite of knowing hardly any of its words, even I feel a strange kind of fondness for Latin. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a cultural phenomenon that comes with studying history and art and classical literature and ancient politics.

But none of this logically explains why English should follow this rule. English already has lots of other things that Latin didn’t, including split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions, and these have not caused such uproar in the grammar world. As well, languages are designed to change. If language stopped evolving, it would lose some its ability to surprise us with new, evocative ways of expression. It would lose some of its power.

Therefore, it’s now officially allowed to use the singular ‘they.’ My country’s government endorses it. Facebook has been allowing its use years. Even the Washington Post is on board now. The singular ‘they’ is gender inclusive, it’s convenient, and it’s here to stay.

It’s also the grammar tool of rebels. The range of acclaimed writers who continued to use the singular ‘they’ is impressive. Shakespeare used it, as did Chaucer. Since they both wrote before the late 18th century, when Latin-worshiping academics instigated this grammar rule, it might be easy to discount them, but they are not alone.

Jane Austen used the singular ‘they’ seventy-five times in her works and her books are considered classics. Charles Dickens also used it, as did Oscar Wilde and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Otto Jesperson used it as well, and he was very active in the academic and linguistic community. Let’s not forget Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, and William Makepeace Thackery, all of whom used the singular ‘they’ as well.

So if someone proofreads your next essay and slashes through a perfectly acceptable usage of the singular ‘they’, go ahead and tell them they’re outdated and wrong. Kind of like a fax machine.

You saw, right?

You saw what I did there, right? I mean besides mocking fax machines.

Check out this link if you’re looking for more on this topic.



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6 thoughts on “If It Was Good Enough for Shakespeare…

      • Lol, I tend to use that expression all the time, unfortunately, but I totally get it. I hear weird phrasing here in the area I live, and sometimes I just want to smack my forehead.

      • It’s funny how you pick up expressions that you hear often, isn’t it? In my first or second year of university I went through a (horrible) phase of saying ‘dece’ instead of ‘decent,’ which isn’t even a long word! But there was a whole group of us who said it and it just happened!

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