Singular ‘They’ Named Word of the Year, Dear Megan Loses It

How a grammar pedant moved through the five stages of loss — on deadline, no less.

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.

Singular 'They'

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.

Until now.

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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.”

Whoa. Noted.

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.

Even Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty was reportedly “delighted” at the news. She’s officially been a proponent of a singular ‘they’ since this 2011 post. Et tu, Brute?

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.

Oh. Hmm.

Thanks, Obama

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:)

tweet

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.

DearMegan-300x291

Tags: language lessons

Category: Writing
Megan Krause

About Megan

Megan Krause is the managing editor at ClearVoice, where she helps brands create great content and manage the content creation process. She also writes a regular writing and grammar column titled Dear Megan – ask her your burning questions @ClearVoice using #DearMegan, and follow her on Twitter.
  • Jayme Cook

    Hi, Megan. After reading this piece I just wanted to tell you that 1) I am horrified, and 2) it is a very well-written piece.

    I’ll be in bed mourning the death of civilized language if you need me.

    • Megan Krause

      lol thanks, Jayme! I feel you sister… methinks it’s we who must adapt and grow, at least in this case.
      Side note: I appreciate your correct use of the hyphen in the compound modifier ‘well-written’
      #waytohyphenate

    • ’16

      Why are you horrified? How can language be civil or uncivil?

      • Jayme Cook

        I was exaggerating a little, but in defense of my hyperbolic claim, accepting singular they as grammatically correct is uncivilized in the sense that it is unrefined and lazy. It’s a lazy solution to the problem of not having a gender-neutral, singular pronoun, and it gives the Strunk & White a huge middle finger. I would rather the ADS just create a new word. “Shim” or “herm.” “For an entrepreneur to succeed, herm needs a website.” That’s civilized, right?https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7937a2a2715e1aa50ec992b439de0abfe1fc52caba1a53c405907cfc40508a2f.jpg

        • ’16

          That’s an interesting perspective. Let me deconstruct it for you. First, it is neither unrefined nor lazy. From a linguistic perspective, a grammatical form cannot be “refined” or “unrefined;” forms just exist. You call it lazy, but it also doesn’t arise from laziness; it arises from a morphosemantic gap in the language. Next, about Strunk and White– since language is fluid, so are the standards. Many of the rules endorsed by Strunk and White are arbitrary and have no basis in linguistics. If you want clarity and style, I suggest you read Steven Pinker’s (a psycholinguist) “Sense of Style,” a style manual based in the brain sciences and the science of language. Lastly, while many would prefer a brand new pronoun, that is not possible to force into existence. Language change is out of our hands– as you see in this case here! A fundamental tenet of sociolinguistics is that language evolves due to the changing needs of speaker communities. If the dominant speaker communities wanted a new pronoun, they would have used one. But forcing one just won’t work, since that’s not how language changes.

          If you say you care about “grammar,” I urge you to read up on linguistics, particularly syntax. Poole’s “Syntactic Theory” is a good introduction. Syntax describes Grammar (with a capital “G”), the “real rules” that exist in our brains to create language.

          • Jayme Cook

            Thanks for the reading suggestions. Very thoughtful of you.

            Yes, I have read your linguistic perception several times since the singular their issue came to light. As Megan mentioned, it is the predominant opinion among scholars like yourself. and though I do appreciate your polysyllabic and condescending explanation of sociolinguistics, and though I understand that language is fluid and organic, it seems an optimistic interpretation of the acceptance of the singular their. What you call the filling of a morphosemantic gap in the language, I call a lazy catering to the dominant speaker communities. If you want to legitimize “lol” as a word, feel free. It makes sense sociolinguistically. Want to drop the Oxford comma? I’ll begrudging comply. It makes sense pragmatically, but to change an accepted grammar (with a little “g”) rule because the majority of the speaker communities does not follow that rule still seems lazy to me. This is simply an opinion, a preference for the former tradition.

            Previously, as Megan also mentioned, the singular their was accepted in speech without debate but formalized, refined, on the page. It demonstrated a distinction between writing and informal conversation, a reverence for the written word. Though I acknowledge the legitimacy and value of Pinker’s (and your own) enthusiasm for the science of language, I simply don’t agree with it in this circumstance. We may as well change the definition of “literally” to coincide with the frequent misuse of the word. Oh, that’s right. We did.

          • Jayme Cook

            Thanks for the reading suggestions. Very thoughtful of you.

            Yes, I have read your linguistic perception several times since the singular they issue came to light. As Megan mentioned, it is the predominant opinion among scholars like yourself. and though I do appreciate your polysyllabic and condescending explanation of sociolinguistics, and though I understand that language is fluid and organic, it seems an optimistic interpretation of the acceptance of the singular they. What you call the filling of a morphosemantic gap in the language, I call a lazy catering to the dominant speaker communities. If you want to legitimize “lol” as a word, feel free. It makes sense sociolinguistically. Want to drop the Oxford comma? I’ll begrudging comply. It makes sense pragmatically, but to change an accepted grammar (with a little “g”) rule because the majority of the speaker communities does not follow that rule still seems lazy to me. This is simply an opinion, a preference for the former tradition.

            Previously, as Megan also mentioned, the singular they was accepted in speech without debate but formalized, refined, on the page. It demonstrated a distinction between writing and informal conversation, a reverence for the written word. Though I acknowledge the legitimacy and value of Pinker’s (and your own) enthusiasm for the science of language, I simply don’t agree with it in this circumstance. We may as well change the definition of “literally” to coincide with the frequent misuse of the word. Oh, that’s right. We did.

          • ’16

            But even you speak (and write) differently from your parents’ generation. Much of this happens on a subconscious level. These changes cannot happen consciously, as I mentioned when pointing out why we can’t just force a new pronoun. That’s why part of this debate is actually very silly in the first place. It doesn’t matter what the ADS tells us– the ADS is a bunch of scientists who sit around watching for what people say. They don’t make words “official” or “unofficial.” Dictionaries can’t even do that (see Anne Curzan’s great Ted Talk on this subject). Grammarians (and some types of linguists) tend to view language as if it exists on its own, apart from society and the world. But as a brain scientist, language comes from brains. And brains are shaped by society, other people, genes, experiences, etc. Language is a social and anthropological phenomenon. One cannot separate language from culture because one shapes the other. If language really evolved through laziness, we probably would not have made it for the approximately 350,000 years that Homo sapiens have been speaking!

  • I absolutely agree. This is among my top grammar peeves. No disrespect to Washington Post or ADS but no. I’ll just quietly keep editing out singular “they” while watching the world “spin on.”

    • Megan Krause

      Hold fast, Rodika, hold fast… I’m glad I found a few commiserators out there!.

  • Michael Brewer

    I really, really, really love this post Megan.

    • Megan Krause

      Thanks Michael! So I have to ask: Which side of the debate fence do you fall on?

  • Milton Herman

    They don’t want you to use the singular ‘they.’ So we use the singular ‘they.’
    -DJ Khaled

  • Chris Cardinal

    Isn’t language and grammar basically always advanced by committee? As you note, thou and thee are gone, forced out by the evolution of the language. I feel like the singular they just isn’t that much of a leap and fits situations better than the clumsy “he or she,” or worse, one of the weird portmanteaus bandied about. If you approach the problem from a user experience perspective, singular ‘they’ is simple, clean, and intuitive (at least after a couple of uses.) It requires no new significant education, it takes less space, it reads more gracefully, and while that twitch in your occipital subsides, you’ll continue to see the light and embrace its simplicity. That’s how ‘they’ get you.

    • Megan Krause

      “That twitch in your occipital” — ha, yes yes 🙂 And agreed, Chris — .as much as the singular ‘they’ is an affront to my fondness for rules and order, I have to agree, there is no better solution. Another hundred years and my stance will be rather quaint, won’t it. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Excellent article, Megan. I wanted to add something regarding gender prescriptivism, because there are, I believe, two separate issues at play here:

    First is the issue you cite in your disclaimer, in which Person X requests that “they” be used as their preferred gender pronoun. You have it exactly right, in my view: As decent people, we respect the right of Person X to be called “he” or “she” or “they” or whatever pronoun of choice.

    Second is the broader issue that “he or she” is gender-prescriptivist even when used in GENERAL terms, because it reinforces a (false) gender binary that excludes non-binary people. In that sense, “they” isn’t just a handy substitute for “he or she”; rather, “he or she” ought to be actively eliminated because it’s incomplete in referring to the general population.