November Blog: The Audacity of Singular “They”
Monday November 2, 2015
I’m surprised at the number of people—and writers—who are unaware of singular “they.” I’m equally surprised at the number of copy editors who disparage as distastefully ungrammatical the use of singular “they” (and it’s related forms) as a singular pronoun—and want to blue pencil it out of existence. And I suspect you’d be surprised at my relaxed stance over this lexical debate.
What would you say about the writer of the following sentence? “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”
Would you tell (him/her/them) (he/she/they) needed a grammar lesson? Well, you’d be insulting the late C.S. Lewis—and many other authors of note. This illustrious list includes: Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, William Thackeray, and Jane Austen to name a few. Oh, and did I mention that various versions of the Bible employ the singular “they” as well?
Before I get into this brouhaha further, let me first offer some examples of the much maligned singular “they” and its related forms.
- A journalist should not be compelled to reveal their sources.
- Everybody returned to their assigned classroom.
- Somebody left their car keys at the desk. Would they please return to the counter to retrieve them?
- A patient should know their rights.
- Everyone promised to behave themselves.
- No one put their hand up.
So you see the problem, right? According to standard grammar, “they” and it’s related forms can only agree with plural antecedents. Well, to my mind, there is no problem. Singular “they” has been used for centuries because English lacks a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. So “they”was pressed into service and has become part of our standard lexicon. I learned it back in high school and college, but I’m always leery of using it out of fear of the grammar Nazis, who favor reworking sentences to avoid the black sheep “they.”
Through the years, strict grammarians have tried to eradicate this tricky issue by employing “he” as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. (No one put up his hand.) But this did not sit well with women in the 1970s or with the transgender crowd of today. Also, the “s/he,” “she/he” solution has proven clunky at best. Other attempts at “xe,” “ze,” and “thon” left readers uttering “What the f …?”
Swedish grammarians, however, will list the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” as one of 13,000 new words in its official dictionary this year. “Hen” has been proposed since the 1960s as a gender-neutral substitute for “han/he” and “hon/she.” It will be interesting to see how “hen” fares with the populace. (Ben Zimmer, “‘They’, the Singular Pronoun, Gets Popular,” The Wall Street Journal)
As all writers know, when a reader stops reading to figure out what the heck the author means, it stops forward momentum. Essentially, it’s the kiss of death. And because of this, some of the grammar bibles (The New Fowler’s 3rd Editon and Grammar Girl) are either acquiescing or taking a neutral stance on singular “they.” And many other grammar mavens are seeing the light as well.
For those rule-conscious holdouts like my grammar bible (The Chicago Manual of Style), I would offer these arguments:
- The real sticking point is when “they” is paired with a singular antecedent. The two do not agree in number. But I would offer a comparison with the subjunctive mood.
- I wish he were home now.
- If she were here, we’d go to the dance together.
Because this is the conjugation of subjunctive, it appears on the surface that the pronoun and verb do not agree in number. So singular “they” is not alone! There are many irregularities in the English language.
- The English language needs a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun more than ever today. To dabble with odd-sounding hybrid words is an insult to readers. When the only holdouts are the pedantic blue-pencil copy-editors and grammarians, it’s time to come down from that grammatical high horse and get with the prevailing historical sentiment that singular “they” is fine—and it offends no one.
- It’s always been my stance that it should be the objective of writers and grammarians to build a system of language that makes the written word easy for the reader to understand. That’s the purpose of grammar and punctuation. That’s all. Since singular “they” is common, well-understood usage, why fix what’s not broke(n)?
This Hemingway quote comes to mind when I hear pedantic grammar divas duking it out: ” We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
Our English language is a living, breathing, evolving entity. It’s been tough for me to let go of certain staples of the lexicon, but evolve we must! I hold on to icons like the sacred Oxford comma and let go of lesser favorites. I suppose these various choices contribute to each writer’s personal style. But if the grammar Nazis want to harass some grammar foible, let them set their sights on the flagrant use of comma splices in modern writing. Or how about bringing back into common parlance the useful interrobang? Those are causes I’ll fight for!
How do you feel about singular “they”? Are you morally offended when it doesn’t agree with it’s singular antecedent? You know I lurve you, and I adore hearing from you. So if you post a comment and give me an earful, you’ll have a chance to win a signed copy of Beautiful Monsters by yours truly—and maybe a little extra swag. *waggles eyebrows* Enjoy your November, tribe, and keep reading!