Facebook Embraces They as a Singular Pronoun

In the big scheme of things, using they as a singular pronoun is forgivable. Heck, it barely registers on the “I should care about this” index.

But when a company worth over $300 billion uses it, I take notice. The picture below is what came up in my notifications today.

Facebook notification, they as a singular pronoun

No, my friend’s name is not Black Rectangle.

It’s not the first time that I’ve gotten this notification. (A one-friend Facebook network would be a joyless existence indeed.) But it is the first time that I’m writing about it.

Every time I see them used to refer to a friend of mine—a friend who could easily be referred to as a him or a her—the grammar nerd inside me winces.

I hear what you’re thinking. “Well, of course you would say that—you run a language services company!”

But believe it or not, it doesn’t actually doesn’t bother me all that much. At least not in speech or informal writing. (I must care a little, though, because I’ve written about the singular they before.)

If Facebook can hyper-target an advertising audience, then the company surely knows if my friend is a man or a woman.

Still, there’s something about Facebook using they as a singular pronoun (actually, them) that strikes me as odd. What is it? Well, it’s the fact that the singular them is used even though the person’s identity is known, both to me and to Facebook. And this runs contrary to the usage that you’re probably most familiar with. (See examples below.)

I would love to know if this wording within Facebook notifications was intentional or just an oversight. It’s certainly not for lack of data.

If the social giant is able to hyper-target an advertising audience on a never-before-seen level of granularity—20-year-old Latino anthropology majors in SoCal who like Drake, BMX, and shellfish do shop at Target, it turns out!—then the company knows whether my friend is a man or a woman.

boy walking alone, they as a singular pronoun

The new they?

Examples of They as a Singular Pronoun

I don’t have the data yet to back it up, but I suspect that we use they, them, and their in the singular mostly when the person’s identity is unknown. After all, if you’re talking about your friend Jerry, then you’re likely going to use he, him, or his in the conversation. That’s what makes Facebook’s usage so strange.

The examples below come from the Web. In each case, a plural pronoun is “incorrectly” used instead of a singular pronoun. (Why the ironic quotes? Because language use isn’t some perfectly binary system of Right and Wrong.)

texas.gov voter ID, they as a singular pronoun

In this text from a texas.gov webpage about voter ID, the voter is nameless and faceless, so their doesn’t shock as much.

forbes in SERPS, they as a singular pronoun

A Google search reveals one instance among many in which the plural pronoun their is used instead of the singular pronoun its.

UK site worker site; they as a singular pronoun

Americans aren’t the only English speakers to use they as a singular pronoun. This text is from a UK government website on employment status.

As Facebook Goes, So Goes the Nation

With over one billion daily active users as of December 2015, Facebook has some serious clout. And while the company isn’t in the business of setting grammatical standards, it could very well be influencing them.

Facebook and other apps primarily reflect usage, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that our computer overlords contribute to how we use language, too. If Mark Zuckerberg and co. use they as a singular pronoun, perhaps the horse is already out of the barn.

Who knows? Maybe in 10 or 20 years, we won’t even blink when we read Send them good thoughts! about a friend named Lisa.

(Zuck, I’ll be happy to take your call if you want to discuss any of this.)

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