SINGULAR ‘THEY’ WINS GROUND.

Amazingly, the proudly reactionary (linguistically speaking, of course) Vocabula Review has published an article by Joan Taber Altieri (under the clever disguise of jjoan ttaber altieri) supporting the (common and much needed) use of “they/their” as a (gender-neutral) singular pronoun. Welcome to the real world, Vocabula! Of course, the imperial troops will continue fighting a rear-guard action for some time, as evidenced by this classic response from Michael Dietsch:

I accept their arguments and in principle I agree, but I’d be loath to accept this use of they in my writing or editing. The onus against it is still so strong that one who uses it, even consciously, is deemed a lesser writer for so doing. And although I know that’s silly on its face, I’ll still allow every grammarian dog to have his or her day.

The last refuge of the defeated Defender of Grammatical Sacred Cows: Credo quia absurdum!
Addendum. See UJG’s persuasive argument against the historically incorrect use of “they” as third-person plural pronoun. You heard me, plural.
Further addendum. Geoff Pullum provides further evidence of the triumph of singular they, which is used even in contexts (the wall of a men’s room, a discussion of pregnancy) where there is no need for gender ambiguity.

Comments

  1. Unfortunately, my concerns are practical and mercenary; were I to copy-edit a manuscript and leave the singular theys alone, or even edit “he or she” into “they,” I’d never work for that client again.

  2. Yeah, I know — I’m in the same position at work. Thank god I have this soapbox where I can ignore such practicalities!

  3. I’d think the last refuge would be “it sounds bad to me”, though it’s hard to affect the usage of others with that tack.
    And I want to ask the editors out there: if you had your druthers, and could leave singular “they”s in or introduce them for cases where the gender of the singular subject is unknown or unspecified, would you also do so when the gender is known but unspecified? Sometimes I hear things like “this kid in my class started talking, and they obviously hadn’t done the reading, blah blah blah”, in which the use of “they” sounds particularly odd to me because the speaker (presumably) knows the gender of that kid in his class–what’s your take on this usage?
    (I myself don’t think “his” is a particularly good choice of pronoun for a single, gender-unknown subject, but I personally dislike “they” and “he or she” gets mighty awkward mighty fast, so I usually end up using it as the least bad-sounding option.)

  4. Well, obviously personal dislike is an irrefutable argument for the person in question; I myself will never use “disinterested” in the currently prevailing sense for the same reason. But to me, “this kid in my class started talking, and they…” is fine — that’s exactly the kind of thing I want to see spread and become accepted, so that we will no longer have to struggle with “he or she.”

  5. Andrew Main says:

    In the 1970s I came across a prospectus for an “intentional community” (in New Zealand, as I recall) which, following usage popular at the time among the well-meaning utopian crowd, was using “co” (“cos,” co’s,” “coself”) in place of the “sexist” gender-collective he or the awkward he or she, etc. In a discussion regarding the question of “non-sex-designating pronouns,” there was an interesting proposal (from a woman, be it noted), from which I quote below. (I never saw anything more about the community, don’t know if it ever happened; perhaps they never quite managed to escape the oppressive patriarchal culture.)
    The anonymous female essayist wrote:
    ————————————————
    “Unfortunately, ‘co’ and ‘cos’ are about as awkward as ‘tey’ [another PC pronoun that enjoyed a brief vogue in those heady days], and consequently will never find their way into everyday use. I have a suggestion you might consider. How about modifying those pronouns already in existence, so that we would have something that sounds less alien and that rolls off the tongue with the ease required of much-used, everyday words?
    “For ‘he’ and ‘she,’ we drop the sex designation and simply use ‘e.’ There are precedents for a single-letter word in ‘I’ and ‘a,’ so the form is acceptable. It may sound a trifle masculine, but with the common use of ‘e,’ the masculine ‘he’ would then require special emphasis. In any case, the visual effect, especially, would be comfortably neutral. Also, those in the public ear would be able to adopt ‘e’ without taking any real risk, such as appearing affected or strident about non-sexism, and they might very well aid us all in the transition. The beautiful part about it is that sexists would then have to be the ones making a special effort to establish their position — they would have to emphasize the ‘h’ in ‘he’ — something we would hope they’d find increasingly awkward and unpopular. [Not to mention those who would have to emphasize the 'sh' in 'she.' But of course feminists are by definition not 'sexist.']
    “As for the other pronouns: ‘him’ and ‘her’ could be replaced for general usage by ‘em’ — also a bit masculine sounding, but actually containing elements of both sex-designates; ‘em’ is already in daily use by children and others as a contraction of ‘them,’ so it would be merely put to a more formal or legitimate use. Easy to say and hear, reasonably innocuous.
    “Third are ‘his’ and ‘her’ (or ‘hers’). For these I suggest ‘es.’ You see, while the primary purpose of sexless pronouns is to replace sex-designating pronouns, they will never replace anything if they aren’t used in daily speech and print. If one trips over something, one does not adopt it, but rather rejects it. So the secondary purpose in creating such pronouns is to get something that can easily slip into the language. I think that will happen far more easily with ‘e,’ ‘em’ and ‘es’ than with such well-meaning stumbling blocks as ‘co’ or ‘cos’ or ‘tey.’ And once established as neutral words, it won’t make any difference if they once seemed a bit masculine-sounding. They are neutral; they mean all of us, not some, and that would feel so good — to be automatically considered a part of the whole rather be tenuously included (we are never certain just when) or designated ‘other’ in a grammatically all-masculine world.”
    ————————————————
    I suppose it follows that the reflexive term would be “emself”; anyway, that’s what I’ve been using, along with the pronouns above, whenever it seems appropriate.
    Andrew Main

  6. Sigh… Well, far be it from me to discourage anyone’s utopian impulses, but this strikes me as simply another set of artificial pronouns that no one but a few utopians will ever use, its inventor being of course convinced that her set of artificial pronouns that no one will ever use is far more natural and easily adoptable than everybody else’s artificial pronouns that no one will ever use. I remain firmly convinced that the only solution that will actually work is one that already exists and is used by normal people, and that would be “they/their.” It is exceedingly puzzling to me that people are more willing to invent totally new sets of pronouns and try to foist them on an indifferent world than to use what already exists; is the concept of “grammatical correctness” that firmly entrenched, even among gender revolutionaries?

  7. It just seems far and away the least bad option to me. It always gives me pause, but nothing else will do. Sing “ho” for the singular they.

  8. Sing “ho” for the singular they;
    We hope it will carry the day.
    It may give us pause,
    It may break a few laws,
    But it’s better than e, cos, and te!

  9. Ben Wolfson,
    I agree that it sounds strange when someone uses “they” in the context you cite–that is, one in which the speaker knows the gender of the person of whom they are speaking. I can accept hearing that in spoken language, but I think I’d try to edit around it in written language, especially if the writer has already made the antecedent clear.

  10. I actually disagree with Altieri that there was some kind of anti-feminist plot in the late 18th century grammarians’ banning of singular “their” — I would think that the grammar mavens of that period were pretty secure in their sense of male superiority, and felt no particular need to take special measures to put women in their place. It had more to do with very naive views of logic and its role in language, and of the primacy of Latin over other languages, combined with implicit and unexamined assumptions about male superiority (rather than conscious scheming).
    P.S. To the person who complained in 2002 that I was less than honest in citing “dialect” speech in novels as evidence that famous authors used singular “their” in their own voice — I can’t track down every single one of the hundreds of citations from the OED, Jespersen, the Steven Pemberton post, etc. in their original context. However, I didn’t see any particular Cockney or dialect spelling features in the post-16th-century examples given, and I did track things down in extreme detail for one author, Jane Austen, with the results which are assembled at my site.

  11. had more to do with very naive views of logic and its role in language, and of the primacy of Latin over other languages, combined with implicit and unexamined assumptions about male superiority
    Exactly, and I will quote your concise and well-phrased formulation when the occasion arises to explain this sort of thing.
    To the person who complained in 2002…
    Anatoly, listen up!
    Thanks for dropping by, HC; I really appreciate your input.

  12. Does anyone remember “thon”? I have a memory of its being proposed a while back — in a similar way to “co” discussed above — but I have no memory of the context. I don’t even know if the “th” was supposed to be hard or soft.

  13. I have reluctantly joined the “they” camp in recent years, too, though I try to avoid it where possible, and I note that it sounds more stupid in some cases than in others.
    In another pronoun issue, have any of you noticed an increased frequency of “that” where “who” seems more correct (viz. “guys that like baseball”)? It seems to be catching on even among apparently educated writers. Does this irk you?

  14. This kid in my class started talking, and it obviously hadn’t done the reading, blah blah blah.

  15. opie: Yes, I’ve noticed that, but for some reason it doesn’t particularly bother me. Don’t get me started on the use of “may have” for “might have,” though!

  16. My $0.02: I sometimes use “they” as convenient shorthand for “he or she” in informal situations, but edit around it whenever possible in more formal speech or writing. I dislike singular “they” because I find it clumsy, but that is probably just a matter of what I’m used to hearing. I am sure that, if it continues to gain currency, it will sit well enough with listeners and readers of oh, say, 3500. :-)
    Don’t get me started on the use of “may have” for “might have,” though!
    My personal !favourite is “would of” for “would have”. But that (hint, hint) is another thread.

  17. “Thon” had a voiced th, as in “they”. It was proposed by Charles Crozat Converse back in the oh-so feminist and politically-correct year 1884. It wasn’t the very first proposal for an epicene pronoun (that was probably Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s suggestion of “it”, as on my web-page), but it was the most famous (even being listed in some dictionaries for a while), and got the issue on the map.

  18. Robert Schwartz says:

    Singular they sounds illiterate. He or She is clumsy.
    But the real question is why has the really simple minded concretness of the feminist complaint (I don’t think he includes both sexes), not earned them scorn instead of compliance?

  19. All the spare “of”s that would float around from any changed “would of”s could could be put to work correcting “A couple hours” and the like, which I’m noticing more and more often, even in farily well-edited print (I think I saw it in Wired not too long ago).

  20. Greg Egan’s fiction (such as Distress and Diaspora) uses ve, ver, vis for sexless characters; it somehow feels more natural to me than the other nominees.
    I recently heard singular they used for a generic woman in a radio advertisement for jewelry or flowers or some such.

  21. it somehow feels more natural to me than the other nominees.
    There seem to be two kinds of people: those who see such made-up words as usable, a good solution, and those who (like myself) see them as impossible and ridiculous. The proof, as ever, is in how many people wind up eating the pudding.

  22. LH, I’m firmly with you on this one. I have little tolerance of words ex nihilo, when there is a very garden of organic etyma from which to pluck. Simples for every lexical ill.
    But we think immediately – do we not? – of the classic case of quiz, concerning which OED observes:
    Of obscure origin: possibly a fanciful coinage, but it is doubtful whether any reliance can be placed on the anecdote of its invention by Daly, a Dublin theatre-manager.

  23. Interestingly, the Chicago Manual of Style was ok with it in their 14th edition, but have changed their collective mind:
    From http://www.chicagomanual.org/cmosfaq.Pronouns.html
    Q. I would swear that I saw a reference in your manual that approved of the use of “their” instead of a gender-biased singular pronoun. For example, “If the user has completed installing the program, they should put the CD-ROM back in the package,” instead of “If the user has completed installing the program, s/he should put the CD-ROM back in the package,” but on your Q&A, you dance around the answer to the question and suggest that you do NOT approve of the singular “their.” Can you tell us what is acceptable?
    A. Yes, you saw it at 2.98 (note 9) in the fourteenth edition, but there was some regret at having written it, and we decided not to second the idea in the fifteenth edition. Though some writers are comfortable with the occasional use of they as a singular pronoun, some are not, and it is better to do the necessary work to recast a sentence or, other options having been exhausted, use he or she. For a fuller discussion of this issue, see paragraphs 5.43 and 5.202–6 in CMS 15, including the entry for “he or she” under the “Glossary of Troublesome Expressions” at paragraph 5.202.

  24. That’s truly sad. Ah well, perhaps by the 16th they will have come to grips with reality.

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