I was raised by a strict grammarian. If, for example, at the dinner table I were to ask “Could you please pass me the salt?,” my mother would dutifully hand the salt over to just beyond my grasp, then return it to its original space and reply, “Why, yes. I could.” With a smile no less. This is because, of course, I had said could, not would.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

I suppose then it should come as no surprise that grammar rules matter to me. In fact, if you were to ask my kids, they’d tell you I do the same routine with passing the salt. Poor kids. I figure it’s good for them.

Given this upbringing, I’m sure you can understand that when the singular “them” first arrived, I found it really awkward.

However, I was hearing from more and more of my friends in the LGBTQIA community that this was their pronoun of choice, so I made the effort. It seemed to me that having your personhood and truth honored was more important than my awkward grammar. With time and practice, it became less and less awkward anyway.

However, lately I have also been hearing a lot of flat-out refusals to adopt the singular “they.” So, naturally, I did what I do: I researched the question.

Turns out, while the use of the singular they is new as it pertains to gender identity, as a practice it is not new at all. In fact, The Oxford English Dictionary traces the singular they back to 1375, “where it appears in the medieval romance ‘William and the Werewolf’ … since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular ‘they’ was common even before the late 14th century.”

This got me thinking about other words in common use that have transitioned from singular to plural or vice versa, and it didn’t take me long before I tripped over you. I mean “you” the pronoun.

Singular pronouns, such as he or she, go with the verb is. Plural pronouns, such as they, go with are. But, if you turned to a coworker and said, “You is amazing” – well, you can see the problem.

It is like this because “you” began life as a plural. So much so that in 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote a whole book labeling anyone who used singular you “an idiot or a fool,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But today, singular you is accepted.

This is one of the things I love most about language, it bends and reflects back the people behind it.

The reality is, our culture is in the middle of some pretty big changes. Gender fluidity, by the way, is not one of them. There has always been a wide spectrum. Recognition of, and discussion around, gender fluidity, however, is fairly new. Our language is still catching up to our comprehension. That’s OK, it will get there.

As of now, both the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook style guide (the bible for academic writing and correct language usage), both recognize the singular use of they and them as pertains to an individual who does not identify with he/she or his/her.

For the definitive word, though, you can’t do better than the APA (American Psychological Association) style guide, which not only outlines correct usage but also answers the question “What if I don’t like the singular they – do I have to use it?” with: “If you are writing about a person who uses ‘they’ as their pronoun, then yes, you have to use it. Respectful and inclusive language is important. And it’s part of APA Style.”

APA, I like your style.

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