now you can use they, and they can use you too

I was just listening to A Way With Words, and I heard something that caught me completely off guard.  I’ve been complaining about gender-neutral singular pronouns for years, hoping that something like ‘ve’ would replace the awkward ‘he or she’ or the patently evil ‘s/he’.  Greg Egan aside, nothing ever took off.  It turns out that the verbivores have already solved this one to my satisfaction with an obvious (but previously maligned) choice: they.

To quote from Sex and the Singular Pronoun:

Gentle reader (and listener), please open your ears and eyes. Listen and look for statements that contain an indefinite pronoun or a singular noun and hear and see what pronoun follows. In almost every case that pronoun will be a form of they. We do that because the device is historically tested. We do that because it is more graceful than “he or she.” And we do that because it avoids making a minority of us the linguistic norm and a majority of us a linguistic afterthought.

That settles it as far as I’m concerned.  I’m going to start using the singular they with impunity, and I’ll let anyone I meet know that they’re welcome to do so as well.  ˇViva la evolución!

7 thoughts on “now you can use they, and they can use you too

  1. I do this constantly and think it’s fine in speech or casual writing, but I zing students for it in term papers. Does this make me a hypocrite?

    Still, I’ve been noticing this for a while. And I think it’s useful and like that it evolved on its own rather than being introduced artificially. The only time it struck me as odd was when an acquaintance referred to his partner as “they”. I assumed (and was correct) that this acquaintance had a same-sex partner but wasn’t sure how I’d react to that.

    My mom still thinks it’s strange that a female can refer to her all-female group of friends as “guys,” but I think that’s been normal since I was a little kid!

  2. I forgot to point out the context for the on-air mention of this. A lawyer asked about something to replace “he or she” in official business documents (like HR documentation), and both verbivores specifically recommended “they” instead of “he or she” (stilted) or “s/he” (jargon). That’s the part that floored me, but it really does make sense after a bit of thought.

    Given that, though, it’ll take a while for the ramifications to get settled. It would still feel odd to meet a woman with a newborn on the street and say, “How beautiful! How old are they?” It’ll catch on eventually, though, and replace the awkward, “How beautiful? How old is… h… sh… your baby?”

  3. John McWhorter makes this case (and several others dealing with English) in his 1998 book Word ont he Street: Debunking the Myth of a Pure Standard English. I recommend it–and you can borrow it from me if you like.

  4. Oh, also: ask the real linguists (verbivores and others on A Way With Words are glorified English professors) when you have questions about this kind of stuff. We’ll give the real answers. :)

  5. Ah, but I know a number of cunning linguists, including Deana of the previous comment. That’s why I saw fit to post it on the blog. :) Your insights are welcome, and I’ll definitely borrow the book at some point. (Karen may end up reading it first, though.)

    Besides, I don’t expect anything definitive from A Way With Words, just like I don’t expect definitive science information from Ira Flatow. I listen to them each week to discover interesting aspects of our fair language, like using “they” as a singular pronoun.

  6. Sorry, I get so little riled up about people possibly propogating bad information that I forget that you’re more reasonable than that!

    Thank you for posting that, too. I think there was a touch of academic elitism in my response, too (“man, that’s old news! We talked about that in my undergrad ling classes.”), which is silly.

    I should also admit that I was directed to mark such usage wrong on essays I graded for a liberal studies final. He/she is calcified as the singular human pronoun in formal usage so it’ll take a while longer for the English teachers to let go of it.

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