Monday, September 25, 2006

The Singular "They"

You often have yet another option for eliminating he, him, and his: replace them with they, them, or their.

But, you say, that's a grammatical error: they and its derivatives are plural!

Not always. Notice that in everyday speech we often use they and its derivatives in the singular. English-speaking people have been doing this since the thirteenth century when he came to mean "male." Writers since Chaucer have been doing it, too. Here's an example from Shakespeare's As You Like It:

God grant everyone their (not his) heart's desire.

The three great unabridged dictionaries of the English language firmly establish this usage. They are the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster's New International Dictionary, and Random House's Dictionary of the English Language. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary prepared the first entries establishing this usage between 1909 and 1915. Here is what the Random House Dictionary of 1987 says:

Long before the use of generic HE was condemned as sexist, the pronouns, THEY, and THEM were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance.

Yes, I know what your high-school English teacher said. That's why the Random House Dictionary added that note above — to contradict grammarians. Here's why.

Using they in the singular instead of the gender-specific he became popular in writing during the eighteenth-century, as women became literate and authors naturally started writing for them too. Grammarians had a thermonuclear reaction to this trend. What nobody else finds confusing, they found very confusing, declaring that we cannot use the same pronoun in both the plural and the singular.

But if that's the real reason for their meltdown, why did they say nothing about the plural pronoun you having recently replaced thou for use in both the plural and the singular?

Something's showing, isn't it?

The only conceivable reason for their howling is that, in the case of you, they had no masculine pronoun to impose on us instead. This conclusion is consistent with the fact that grammarians rage only about issues that involve gender.

They decreed the "he/man" words gender-neutral and persecuted authors who used the they in the singular, characterizing them as ignorant and uneducated. For two centuries, few writers dared incur their wrath. Thus pedantry, language policing, word-watching, was born.

Their descendants overreacted to the same degree when journalists started using the singular they in print. Big business had invented nonsexist language (to get better executives by insuring the promotability of women). Government agencies had followed suit (for Constitutional reasons in the wake of the Civil Rights Amendment). Of course, the Women's Liberation Movement thought nonsexist language was a good idea and used and promoted it, but otherwise had nothing to do with it. Yet, pedants cry that the singular they is something new and that gender-neutral language is just "political correctness" imposed on the ignorant by a rancorous Women's Liberation Movement.

Like their eighteenth-century forebears, they warn that English shall be destroyed any minute now by continuing this 800-year-old practice of using they in both the plural and singular.

But language isn't carved in stone: it's whatever the population using it makes it. So, in a pinch consider using they, them, or their in the singular if you can do so without ambiguity. More on this next time.

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