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I saw this meme on facebook:

enter image description here

So, was "their" truly a genderless 3rd person singular pronoun prior to some change in the 16th/17th century?

This Wikipedia article indicates that the genderless 3rd person singular pronoun was "it" for early English.

When I look at the etymology for "he" it doesn't give enough information. On the other hand, the etymology for "their" gives a hint that "their" was a gender neutral singular pronoun.

I'd like a rigorous answer, preferable something peer reviewed, that explains the source of this claim, if indeed it is true.

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  • 14
    An important consideration is how common was its usage? It’s easy to find a handful of cases for its singular use. There’s a big difference between it having been used, and it having been used usually and frequently. Oct 22 at 1:48
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    Related, though about current/recent usage, may contain interesting links to references: english.stackexchange.com/questions/48/…
    – Hulk
    Oct 22 at 7:26
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    At the very least, it seems that Shakespeare also used "it" when referring not to a member of a group, but an individual with unspecified gender: english.stackexchange.com/a/172297
    – Hulk
    Oct 22 at 7:34
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    I figure a good way to answer this would be to find a grammar book (or similar) from the relevant time period that documents that use of the term.
    – Dave
    Oct 22 at 15:05
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    @Dave Even more, in Hulk's link above, Shakespeare used "it" instead of "their". Anyways, how can I say it more clearly than "prior to the 16th century"?
    – axsvl77
    Oct 22 at 18:51
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Yes, from the OED blog:

The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’

Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.

There's a few more examples in the free OED entries for they and their, and even more in the MED under they 1a(e). (These are both well-regarded sources on historical English, with the OED often being regarded as the best.)

As for how common it was, there's no definitive answer. In The Rise of Epicene They, the author did a proximity search for pronouns following "each/every [noun]" (or similar) in The Canterbury Tales, and found that 18% of the time the pronoun that followed was "they", arguing that this is a good measure for English at the time and place it was written (early 15th century, or earlier if the scribe was faithful to the version being copied).

When did the prohibitions on singular they begin? Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar cites a 1746 grammar rule, which it says is "best viewed as an unusually early and very incipient form of the attack on singular 'they", and quotes another source from 1795 that calls out singular they as one of "many violations".

(Singular they isn't one grammatical feature; it is many. There is diversity in when each came into use, but this answer mainly provides evidence for one or two types. I will expand on the other types if I find a suitable source.)

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    Hardly my area of expertise, but "they drew near" could have meant "they" as a group in that context, IMHO. Besides, the translation was apparently terrible. bartleby.com/211/1303.html
    – Fizz
    Oct 22 at 22:30
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    “Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.” This is more than a stretch; it seems like desperation to reach a desired conclusion. A few instances being pointed out is not enough to conclude it was common. Oct 22 at 23:36
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    @fredsbend I don't understand the notice and I don't see any problem here. The blog post was written by a "Professor of English and linguistics" and it serves as a nice quotable intro for the many examples given by the OED and MED, found in the links. The notice is boilerplate; clearly the OED/OUP does believe that's the first example, of the several that they offer.
    – Laurel
    Oct 23 at 1:47
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    @JustSomeOldMan (and others)... Please visit the links given in the answer, especially the first dictionary link to they. The quote given by the blog is the first (i.e. oldest) of several old sources that the OED explicitly lists out.
    – Laurel
    Oct 23 at 3:11
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    @Laurel The article " Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar" does it for me. That article seems to be a list of grammarians endorsing the Latinization of English; specifically they were trying to endorse the use of "he" instead of a variety of alternatives. Their efforts are an indication of usage; they would not have tried to proscribe something that didn't happen.
    – axsvl77
    Oct 23 at 8:44
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I'm afraid I can't give you a peer-reviewed answer. However, the use of the singular "they" by Shakespeare is well documented.

NYUlocal's discussion of the Swedish "hen", also claims the singular "they" was used in The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, Mansfield Park, and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

More to the point, in "A Comedy of Errors Shakespeare uses these lines:

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

And there's this from "The Rape of Lucrece":

Now leaden slumber with life's strength doth fight;
And every one to rest themselves betake,
Save thieves, and cares, and troubled minds, that wake.

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    Hmmm. From this, it is hard to determine how standard it was in spoken language.
    – axsvl77
    Oct 22 at 11:11
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    This could be interpreted as cherry picking. “What proportion of singular pronouns used are singular “their”s?” is the real question. Oct 22 at 12:04
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    Though I think that this answer could be improved by better filling out where/how Shakespeare's use is "well documented", I think the thrust of this answer is on track: if "the father of modern English" regularly used they/their/themslelves etc. for singular 3rd person, then considering it a "normal" usage seems reasonable to me.
    – Dave
    Oct 22 at 15:16
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    @axsvl77: What do you mean by "spoken" language? Do you contrast spoken language with written language, or do you think along the lines of colloquial vs. formal language? Because if you're interested in the former, then you're probably out of luck: due to, well, technical constraints we simply don't have many reliable sources of spoken archaic English.
    – Schmuddi
    Oct 22 at 15:29
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    @fredsbend while it doesn't necessarily indicate common use, it does imply that people would not have found it particularly unusual. And, the question does not ask for evidence of common use, it asks whether "their" was a singular pronoun.
    – hdhondt
    Oct 24 at 23:50
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The question could be answered by comparison of the King James Bible (1611 version) with the Wycliffe Bible (1382) but would require some considerable research.

Here are two examples I found myself, which indicate that 'they/their/them' was not used singularly prior to the 16th century:

2 Kings 14:12

1611 every man to their tents

1382 ech man in to his tabernaclis

Philippians 2:3

1611 better than themselves

1382 heiyer than hym silf

Source Textus Receptus Bibles


Care would need to be taken in certain passages since the Wycliffe is translated from the Latin Vulgate whereas the KJV is translated from the Koine Greek text and the Masoretic Hebrew text but in these two examples above, the sense is the same, despite different source texts, and the comparison is valid in English.


The Oxford English Dictionary has traced the singular 'they' back to 1375 and 1450 but this does not suggest that it was common usage, only that it is seen in example:

a. With an antecedent that is grammatically singular, but refers collectively to the members of a group, or has universal reference (e.g. each person, everyone, nobody).

Sometimes, but not always, used to avoid having to specify the gender(s) of the individual(s) being referred to; cf. sense A. 2b.

a1375 (▸c1350) William of Palerne (1867) l. 2179 Hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt..til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh..þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.

c1450 (▸?c1400) Three Kings Cologne (Cambr. Ee.4.32) (1886) 6 Noman was hardy in all þat countrey to sette aȝens hem, for drede þat þey hadde of hem.

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  • The OED link is not to the OED but to the Textus
    – mmmmmm
    Oct 23 at 11:40
  • This particular OED page does not require a subscription. (It's the same one I used in my answer.) Two further comments: 1) One source won't necessarily be reflective of every other source for the next 200+ years (especially when it's the Bible, where the language is often more faithful to other languages). 2) You cannot use the number of dictionary entries to determine frequency. There are other examples not in that (see MED) that weren't included, probably for the sake of space.
    – Laurel
    Oct 23 at 13:22
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    Your examples do not indicate that "they" was not used as a singular pronoun prior to the 16th century. They indicate that at least one person in the 14th century used "he" as a generic singular pronoun.
    – Obie 2.0
    Oct 23 at 16:25
  • I like the idea, Nigel, especially since the KJV was translated expressly to be in the "common tongue". However, your approach appears to be original research, which is not allowed. The remainder of the answer is rather lackluster on its own. If you can find a source that does what you're doing here with these bible translations, then we'd be ok.
    – fredsbend
    Oct 24 at 15:07
  • @fredsbend Thank you. I actually agree with that summation. It was the best I was able to do.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 24 at 15:24

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