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MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world’s expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .

SASHA TROYAN is a Professor of English at Montclair University and author of the critically-acclaimed novels Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island, both Booksense Selections, beautiful stories based upon her childhood in France. I worked with Troyan to develop her new novels, Marriage A Trois and Semester. Read more. . .

LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .

BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s best-selling debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by Pan Macmillan. Read more. . .

SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, published by Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I’m working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .

SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .

M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with multiple sci-fi/fantasy series set in the Multiverse, based upon her expertise in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .

ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny’s debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .

STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield’s second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .

GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans’ fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .

JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .

JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff’s abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .

LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star. Read more. . .

ALEX KENDZIORSKI is an American physician working in South Africa on community health education and wildlife conservation. I edited Kendziorski’s debut novel Wait a Season for Their Names about the endangered African painted wolf, for which he is donating the profits to wildlife conservation. Read more. . .

ALEXANDRA GODFREY blogs for the New England Journal of Medicine. I work with Godfrey on her short fiction and narrative nonfiction, including a profile of the doctor who helped save her son’s life, “Mending Broken Hearts.” Read more. . .

In addition, I work with scores of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this wonderful literary art and craft.

  • By Victoria Mixon

    I don’t usually futz around with grammar issues here, but this one came up and it’s kind of an exception, so I’m going to give you a little grammar lesson today.

    You all know me well enough to know I don’t make too many grammatical howlers, and you probably also know that I use ‘they’ and ‘them’ for third-person singular construct. But so far (almost three years four and a half years of this blog now) you’ve all been quite accepting of that and not questioned my reasoning. Then today someone linked to a post of mine, but when they quoted me they felt obliged to insert a ‘[sic]’ after ‘they’ to let their readers know they know they think it’s ungrammatical. Which was very conscientious of them.

    So I thought I’d better explain: this is not an ungrammatical error; this is a deliberate editorial decision.

    One I made thirty years ago.

    Back in the early 1980s, shortly after the women’s rights movement had finally put Equal Rights for women into a Constitutional Amendment (a no-brainer, right? it was voted down), there was a lot of hoopla over the correct third-person singular pronoun in the English language. Because, of course, we don’t have a neutral third-person singular pronoun, and historically English grammarians (mostly men) had made the decision that all third-person singulars must be considered male until proven female.

    An extremely odd decision, all things considered, since more than half the people on this planet are female. You’d think it would go with the majority, wouldn’t you? But no. A female was male to all strangers in print unless she could give a really good reason to refer to her as female. It seems simply being female wasn’t a good enough reason.

    And the feminists—rightly—took issue with this.

    There was a little book that came out around then called The Tao of Pooh, which I liked a lot. So when the author wrote a sequel, The Te of Piglet, I ran right out and bought it. And what do you know—the author had decided that the great success of The Tao of Pooh had transformed him magically overnight into an authority on all things literary, and he devoted a whole chapter in The Te of Piglet to this grammatical contretemps and his personal opinion that any female who objected to being considered male sight-unseen was a hysterical freak and should simply be shouted down. His argument was that it didn’t hurt anybody, it was easy to get used to, and feminists were making a big old flapadoodle about nothing.

    And he had a point.

    So I sat myself down and wrote him a letter—in those days we didn’t have email, so when you wrote an author a letter, you wrote a real letter, put it in a real envelope, stamped it with a real stamp, and mailed it off to their publisher—in which I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Such a trivial issue didn’t hurt anyone in the slightest and could easily be considered a whole lot of flapadoodle about nothing, as I could prove by having taken to using the female third-person singular pronoun for everyone, which I’d gotten used to almost immediately. And I thought this author, when she’d had a chance to think about it, would throw her weight behind me as well.

    Sadly, in spite of my enthusiasm, The Te of Piglet failed as a philosophical treatise, and nobody ever heard from that guy again.

    I was kidding, of course, about using the female pronoun for third-person singular. You could. Just as easily as the male, and with a little more logic, seeing as how you had better odds of being right in a world dominated by the female gender. But it would miss the point that respect is a pretty fundamental attitude to hold toward our fellow humans, and respect for each of us as a member of our own gender is pretty close to most of our hearts.

    Fortunately, I saw a simple solution that didn’t involve either the awkward constructs he/she or she/he (I was always surprised nobody seemed to choose the latter) or some variation on randomly messing with everyone’s gender in general.

    And that was in the natural evolution of language and—slightly lagging but still evolution—of grammar.

    Grammar was not handed down from on high the day the English language was invented, never to be deviated from again. Grammar is a product of usage, and all language usage evolves first in oral tradition, only to be accepted in written grammatical forms eventually, even if at a slightly later date. So that, for example, when the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ dropped out of common daily usage, it was some time before grammarians realized it no longer made sense to insist upon it for the English version of the Romance Language variations on the Latin intimate second-person singular, ‘tu.’ Nobody insists a writer use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ anymore, even in dialog between parents and children. I’m pretty sure.

    In the same way, common usage had already, even thirty years ago, solved the third-person singular pronoun dilemma. In oral communication, we all simply used ‘they.’

    “Who was that jogger? They just threw garbage in front of my house!”

    “I got the weirdest call the other day. This person said they had a hot deal for me, but it turned out they didn’t know what it was.”

    “I know you always think a pundit’s clever so long as they’re fast with a pun, but I’d like to see them disagree with themself once in awhile.”

    It seemed a simple step to adjust my grammatical compass to accept this common-sense solution to such a sticky problem. So I did. In fact, I even use the third-person singular reflexive pronoun ‘themself.’ I’ve been using it for thirty years—in speech as well as in writing.

    Now that we’re well into the twenty-first century, with all its flapadoodle flapping in the breeze in all directions, I’ve simply stopped worrying about it. Am I on the cutting edge? Or am I just going with the flow?

    Either way, common usage has proven for decades now that it’s grammatically correct.

    UPDATE from Christine Kidney:

    Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules says: ‘Note, however that it is now generally regarded as old-fashioned or sexist to use he in reference to a person of unspecified sex, as in every child needs to know that he is loved. The alternative he or she is often preferred, and in formal contexts is probably the best solution, but can become tiresomely long-winded when used frequently. Use of they in this sense (everyone needs to feel that they matter) is becoming generally accepted both in speech and in writing, especially where it occurs after an indefinite pronoun such as everyone or someone, but should not be imposed by an editor if an author has used he or she consistently.’



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31 Responses to “Grammar expose—using ‘they’ for third-person singular”

  1. Maine Character said on

    So glad to hear this. Another blogger insisted it was wrong, and I’ve felt suspect ever since. But when writing to an online friend about her partner, I couldn’t find a way to phrase it without saying “they,” since I didn’t know if her spouse was male or female.

    So thanks for taking that grammatical guilt off my shoulders.

    By the way, about Hoff, it seems he’s removed himself from publishing by choice.

  2. Ah, yes, the tyranny of the random blogger. I’ve run across plenty of self-identified experts who couldn’t make an intelligent case for their opinions beyond, “that’s the way it’s always been.” Which logic often fails drastically as soon as you back up as far as, um, last year.

    I even put a chapter on such shenanigans into the section on parsing in The Art & Craft of Fiction: inexpert experts bickering in rather serious hostility (name-calling!) over a syntax issue about which, it turned out, they were wrong.

    I’ve thought long & hard over most of the grammar contretemps going on today, so if you run across one again, just shoop on over to the advice column and ask me. 🙂

  3. Oh, by the way, I finally got around to reading the article by Hoff. Wow, he sounds just as self-righteous and self-pitying as he did in the mimeographed letter with which he answered the letter I sent him that was signed, in all good humor, something like “The Society of People in Favor of Using Gender-Specific Third-Person Singular Pronouns.” (It was a long time ago, and I was laughing too hard to think of making a carbon copy, but I’m pretty sure I was wittier in the original.)

    I’ve received the occasional comment on this blog from similar ‘best selling’ authors who seem incapable of talking about anything but how best selling they are. Their comments bored me. So I deleted them.

  4. This made my day. Made my day. 🙂

  5. 🙂

    I’m so glad, Kerri! You made my day back.

  6. In writing, I’ve been using “s/he” (which, unfortunately, doesn’t have an analog for “him/her”), but a lot of times I just use “they” because everyone knows what I mean and it’s the easiest pronoun to use.

    You’re lucky you don’t speak Spanish. Not only is he (ello) and she (ella) gendered, but so is they (when referring to men; ellos) and they (when referring to women; ellas), and if there’s one man in the group, it doesn’t matter if there’s five billion women, as long as there’s one man, you must use ellos to be grammatically correct.

  7. Yeah, I speak Spanish, Sam. Some. That’s a grammatical can of worms I wish I had a solution for, but I don’t.

    At some point, the Spanish-speakers of the world will have to come up with one. Then all their female beds and tables and chairs and male books and paper and altars will have to get together and work things out.

  8. Hey, I just had a thought. You know what they should do in Spanish? Use the same construct as ‘esta, esto, este.’ Use the ‘e’ suffix for neutral: “Ella, el, elle. Ellas, ellos, elles.” They could even use a neutral article: “le.”

  9. […] Grammar interlude—using ‘they’ for third-person singular @ Victoria Mixon […]

  10. I think if someone has any issue with this then they should just stick it.
    They is here to stay!
    Funny…I’m writing a period piece…now I need to check and see if they use ‘they’ incorrectly for the period…

  11. Interesting enough, when I looked it up in the OED I found that not only is ‘they’ officially recognized now as both singular and plural, but there’s a little-known instance in which it is recognized to mean ‘it.’

    So, yeah, I think you could safely say it’s here to stay. 🙂

  12. I’m glad to find someone who agrees with me on this. I’ve been doing it for a number of years when I could get away with it. At my last job, where I spent seven years as an editor for a corporation, the politically conscious overlords insisted on using the construction s/he and her/him. I didn’t complain too much but continued using “they” and “them” in my personal writing. After all, that’s how our English forebears did it a few hundred years ago.

    You’re not the only one to advocate this usage, by the way. Merriam Webster recently posted a little video clip from one of their editors on this very issue, although I can’t find it now.

  13. No kidding, Ben? I hadn’t heard about that. I imagine Merriam Webster is following the lead of the OED. It’s been a few decades now since this whole thing became an issue—long enough for common usage to leak into formal sanction.

    Every publisher (including corporations) has its own stylesheet dependent upon the editors in charge. The truth is grammar is in constant flux, and there are a lot of recognized variations in many different areas, so at a certain point it simply turns into “tomato, tomah-to.” I’ve followed a number of corporate stylesheets that varied from my personal preferences, but, you know, nobody reads that corporate stuff anyway. 🙂

  14. I found the video.

    The issue also gets a discussion in their entry for “they,” if you’re geeky enough to go look it up. 🙂

    I was actually the author of my employer’s corporate style guide, but unfortunately I didn’t have carte blanche on all editorial decisions. I still had to please the overlords … er, owners … at least sometimes. At least I had the comfort of relative anonymity when I had to follow editorial decisions I disagreed with!

  15. Thanks, Ben! I put it on Twitter.

    Yes, I’ve been the author of corporate stuff I disagreed with, too. Ah, the corporate world—where the coffee is always bitter, the snacks are always high-fructose, and the battles pitched over editorial tables are always life-or-death.

  16. I just loved learning in Spanish class about how you could be addressing a group of 50 women with 1 token male tossed in there and it would still technically have to be ellos, not ellas.

    What the Spanish language has that the English language more or less does not (unless we count Oxford and/or M-W?):

  17. I can’t believe the Royal Spanish Academy is trying to get rid of ‘ll’! I love ‘ll’! Especially since it’s pronounced in the Andes as ‘ly’ rather than the more common ‘y.’ That’s the kind of of things that gives language its wonderful tactile complexity.

    And they’re trying to erase all the accents? What’s that about? The accents are there for a reason—one of the beauties of Spanish is that anyone who knows the basic rules can pronounce almost anything, whether they know the meaning or not, a vast improvement over such languages as English and French. There’s also a rather important distinction between such words as ‘tu’ and ‘tú’ and ‘solo’ and ‘sólo.’ Is this simply the Anglification of a Romance Language?

    Well, I like Luis Fernando Lara’s response: “We’re free in this world not to listen to them.”

  18. You just made my writing life a little easier! I’ve gotten into the habit of never using third person singular just to avoid the issue. Rather than write “the ticket holder can’t tell if he/she has won,” I write “ticket holders can’t tell if they have won.”

    Switching the structure to third person plural works most of the time, but it adds distance. Third person singular would be more immediate or relevant in a lot of situations.

  19. I’m glad, Daniel! I try to avoid the singular, too, but I had to make a stylistic decision for my books to use singular rather than plural after I tried plural and ran into trouble with multiple manuscripts to match multiple writers, which turned into multiple Climaxes and Hooks and Faux Resolutions,which complicated the terminology needlessly and eventually started sounding like something out of Gilbert & Sullivan.

    It’s all about that great immersion in language that is a writer’s joy and despair.

  20. Thank you for using ‘they’ and ‘them’ as third-person singular constructs. We write our own futures, you know. 🙂

  21. You’re welcome, CMS! 🙂

    You’ve got a good point. The trick is to write our futures with well-informed and conscientious awareness of our historical traditions, particularly here in the realm of literature where we writers so paradoxically dwell.

  22. I enjoyed that and I agree.
    There are a lot of fault-finders around, aren’t there? Waiting in the wings, ever-eager to jump on what they suppose is an slight error. Or even an actual slight error.
    I’m not a great typist, so it’s easy for me to miss typos in proofreading. Not that this point bears directly on your points–but it does hit at fault-finders!
    Enjoy your posts and interviews. Excellent and helpful info.

  23. You know, there are always fault-finders, Bill, in every field, although the rate of inexpert experts in literature has risen exponentially since the explosion of the world wide web.

    Fortunately, I’ve spent a lot of my career working in tech writing where the most opinionated writers tend to puddle—I was toughened years ago to editing fault-finders in that particular in-grown niche. 🙂

  24. I also use “they” as a gender neutral singular pronoun (even though I have to teach otherwise for my ACT/SAT students). I love it and I think it’s a clean and quick fix for the problem you stated above.

    In fact – is my memory wrong or did some “expert” like the OED declare this an acceptable amendment some years back?

  25. Yes, the OED accepts ‘they’ as both singular and plural. And they’re the Grand Poobah of English dictionaries.

  26. John McIntyre said on

  27. Thank you kindly for the link, sir! Very succinct perspective.

    “When committing a grammatical sin, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.”—Mae ‘Grammarian’ West

  28. I love this! I never looked at it this way, but it makes absolute sense.

  29. Hi, Michelle! 🙂

  30. Victoria, thanks for this post. I’ve been wrestling with this in my personal and professional writing of late. My issue is not with the gender implied, but with communicating that a single person is responsible for the action, not more than one (singular vs. plural). In my reading of recent business books, I’ve seen “she” used as the pronoun of choice. I’ve seen many use “they.” It’s awfully wordy to try the “he or she” trick, and that triggers the gender bias trap (“she or he”). I think as long as you have a good explanation, as you have presented here, and apply the rules consistently, you’re in good shape.

  31. Yes, exactly, Alison. It becomes an irregular. I use “you” as the model. “You” uses the plural verb form even when it’s singular: “You are” rather than “You is.” As long as I double-check the verb conjugation to make sure it would work for “you” I know it’s clean.

    I think we all wrestle with it, truly. Grammar is one of those things about writing that keeps morphing over time.