My indignation was palpable. Well, well, well, I thought. So it’s come to this.
The object of my ire was the announcement from the American Dialect Society that it had selected the singular ‘they’ as its Word of the Year.
I’m an editor, and I’ve been striking the singular ‘they,’ reworking sentences and substituting ‘he or she’ for years. Because ‘they’ is a plural pronoun, you see. And every civilized human being knows you can’t have a singular noun and a plural pronoun. Duh.
And now a group of respected grammarians, linguists and scholars not only say it’s OK to mix the two — they vote it as their g^%$@mn word of the year!??
What’s next? We loosen the reins on dangling participles? Maybe just do away with that pesky subjunctive mood? Why don’t we make apostrophes optional in the possessive, hmm?
You can have my ‘he or she’ when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
A recap of the issue
English lacks a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun. What does this mean? Take the sentence,
The first thing every doctor needs is their own website.
No go — ‘doctor’ is singular and as such, it needs a singular pronoun. ‘Their’ doesn’t work because it’s reserved for plural nouns.
We used to solve this problem by defaulting to the singular masculine pronoun, making it,
The first thing every doctor needs is his own website.
But that’s sexist, right? You don’t know the gender of the doctor in question; it could very well be a woman. So we did one of two things: We reworked the sentence to make the noun in question plural, such as,
The first thing doctors need is their own website.
or we used the clunky and awkward ‘he or she/his or her’ construction,
The first thing every doctor needs is his or her own website.
Sometimes we editors just assigned a gender to the unknown doctor and went with it. But that didn’t feel right, either.
Now, if you or I were speaking about the good doctor in casual conversation, we’d likely use the singular ‘they’ without even thinking about it. Even the most stringent grammar nerd among us does so in speech without reproach. But in writing, this was considered a major blunder. They = plural. Period.
I take my tantrum to the masses
First stop was the company Slack channel, where I posted news of the American Dialect Society’s distinction along with a declaration of my horror. No one sided with me — not even the other editors. “It’s about time, Megan,” they chatted back at me. “It’s the best solution when you don’t know gender, and everyone uses it in conversation, anyway.”
No, no, no. It’s wrong.
“Sorry Megan, but I love it,” another posted. Her comment earns her three little heart emojis in agreement.
Forgive them, grammar gods, they know not what they do.
Next I took to Twitter, where my outrage garnered one measly “like” from a charitable follower (thanks Melody, I appreciate you). I also heard from John Damianos, a senior at Dartmouth College majoring in linguistics and neuroscience. We sparred good-naturedly for a few turns, during which the thrust of my argument whittled down to, Because you can’t just do that. You just can’t change the rules.
I mean, they’re the rules. Right?
When all else fails, Google it
I knew I couldn’t be the only person horrified at this transgression. My coworkers and followers may have gone rogue on the matter, but surely I could find others with a little respect for order.
I found little sympathy online.
Actually, every link I clicked on led to praise of the singular ‘they.’ There was this spirited defense, in which the author warns the likes of me, “Don’t mistake yourself for a brave defender of our language against the barbarians at the gates when, in truth, you’re nothing but a millennialist shouting about the end-times of the English language. Meanwhile, the world spins on, and the language flourishes, hale and hearty.”
I also discovered that the Washington Post officially adopted the singular ‘they’ in December 2015, even going so far as to give it an entry in its style guide. Copy editor Bill Walsh called the singular ‘they’ “the only sensible solution” to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun.
On and on it went. I did find one (one!) article against the singular ‘they,’ this one by Jen Doll of The Atlantic’s The Wire. I hunkered down for a good read. Let ‘er rip, girl.
Eh. Even I could see her argument was weak, anemic. Once again, it all came down to, It’s just not right. And boy, did she get shredded in the comments.
I get a few language lessons
Many proponents noted how the singular ‘they’ can be found in the writings of many respected authors, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Shaw and C.S Lewis.
“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.” – C.S. Lewis, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”
Then there was this convincing argument: Did you know that ‘you’ was once exclusively plural? Yes, centuries ago ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ were the appropriate singular pronouns, but by about 1700, the singular ‘you’ replaced them. Three centuries later, we don’t even think twice about it.
I tried to picture an 18th-century me arguing to keep ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ — Why, it just isn’t righteth! and I realized how silly that sounded. Because no one uses those words any more, regardless if they are the “right” words to use or not.
What was happening? Right was wrong, black was white, up was down — I turned to my new Twitter friend, John Damianos, the linguist from Dartmouth. Make sense of it all, I implored. He did:
Linguists care about how people actually speak, not how they are told to speak. Speaker communities decide what ‘they’ means. Because language evolves in response to society — which itself is constantly in flux — speakers sensed a need for a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, and ‘they’ filled that gap. From a linguistic perspective, there is nothing wrong with singular ‘they;’ in fact, it’s an exciting phenomenon that tells us something about the current state of our society.
The president put the issue to bed for me, really. In his final State of the Union address Wednesday night, Obama said,
We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job.
Every American = singular. They = plural. Obama used the singular ‘they.’ Thank you, and good night!
(With a nod to New York Times editor Margaret Sullivan for first tweeting about it:)
Language belongs to the people, blah blah blah
In the end, my only argument was a flailing, “But, but, it’s wrong…” Which isn’t enough. I hurled my final, feeble plea into the wind and conceded.
I don’t like it, but as The Economist’s Johnson notes in THEIR missive about the singular ‘they,’
But life, unfortunately, is full of unsatisfying solutions.
Ain’t that the truth.