Recently, the American Dialect Society (ADS) voted the singular “they” as the Word of the Year, deeming it the most popular and socially influential word of 2015.
Notably, the ADS is a nonprofit organization with no authority over English language customs and rules. However, its word selection highlights an emerging trend in English vocabulary: using “they” to refer to a single person of an unknown (or sometimes known) gender — a trend which may find its way into real estate law and publications.
Editor’s note — The ADS specifically addresses “they” as a pronoun intended for someone who identifies as neither female nor male. However, this usage is beyond our scope here, as our focus is on formalizing the singular “they” as a generic pronoun to refer to someone when gender is irrelevant.
The growing acceptance of “they”
For those accustomed to abiding by conservative grammar rules fixated on gender, adoption of the singular “they” has been a struggle. Yet, the singular “they” pronoun is far from a new occurrence, and in fact is commonly used in spoken English.
For example, in colloquial speech, English speakers are likely to ask of someone whose gender is unknown, “Where did they go?” Rarely does someone resort to the impractical question, “Where did he or she go?”
The pronoun has not only claimed a spot in daily vernacular, but is also appearing in formal writing, provoking some debate. Publications like The Washington Post have inducted the singular “they” into their style guide, standardizing the pronoun and abandoning the wordy “he or she,” “h/she” and other variations.
first tuesday similarly adopted the term in 2014, replacing all gender-specific pronouns in our journal and all 16 textbooks with the more inclusive “they” — an editorial decision that has occasionally prompted vocal disapproval from readers.
Use in real estate
Adapting the plural pronoun for singular use is a solution to a long-standing dilemma often found in legal text and documents: that is, the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun for a single subject and the outdated practice of standardizing the default male pronoun.
Though in conformance with proper grammar rules and practice, exclusive use of masculine pronouns fails to adequately include a larger audience and unnecessarily pays homage to an obsolete gender hierarchy.
To avoid the pronoun problem, first tuesday endorses state legislation that ends the practice of solely employing masculine pronouns or cluttering current law with multiple gender pronouns. We support the simple use of “they” to convey male and female, both singular and plural — the he/she stuff now of the past. This serves to clarify law and legal documents without creating an unnecessary division of gender.
For real estate agents, consider that it is not only practical, but also a subtle way to appeal to a larger audience in marketing material.
Advertisements that use single-gender pronouns and salutations unnecessarily exclude some perceptive readers from your potential client base and tend to incite protests. For more inclusive advertising, you are not required to clutter your ads with multiple gender pronouns and titles — or clarify your intention to address all genders, as some legal documents have resorted to. [Calif. Corporations Code §17701.07(d)]
Simplicity is the best approach. Stick to a gender-neutral alternative like “they,” when referring to anyone. Always avoid salutations that isolate a specific gender, such as “sir” or “madam,” and instead opt for generic terms like “homeowner” or drop titles altogether.
Using the more inclusive pronoun “they” keeps it simple, while avoiding gender assumptions about your audience and expanding your language to reach more clients.