Singular They Part III

Posted on Tuesday, August 13, 2019, at 11:00 pm

Thank you to the many readers who commented thoughtfully on both How Did They Get in Here? (July 3, 2019) and How Can They Be Singular? (July 31, 2019). Today we’ll wind up our discussion of the singular they, including modern arguments for its use. When we ran this series in 2015, we received little reaction. As revealed by many of the current comments, our awareness as a society has evolved considerably since then, especially concerning gender issues. Today we’ll wind up our discussion of the singular they, including modern arguments for its use.

*    *    *    *    *

Despite curmudgeons’ howls, the singular they has become respectable. Many editors at a recent American Copy Editors Society conference declared themselves open to the once-frowned-upon use of they with a singular antecedent.

English is an often imperfect language that makes the best of its shortcomings. We say “none are,” despite the prominent one in none, because English has no other pronoun meaning “not any.”

And although the relative pronoun who can refer only to humans, its possessive form, whose, is routinely used with animals: a dog whose collar fell off and inanimate objects: a bridge whose view is unsurpassed. Not even the strictest language purist denounces the nonhuman whose because English lacks a corresponding word that refers to creatures and things.

Similarly, as the writer Ben Zimmer notes, “English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and ‘they’ has for centuries been pressed into service for that purpose.”

Two weeks ago we acknowledged the historical validity of they and its variants in sentences like “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.” Then several readers informed us that singular they has become a practical way of addressing or describing those in the LGBTQ community who prefer they to masculine or feminine pronouns.

We learned that, just last month, the City Council of Berkeley, California, voted to ban gender-based personal pronouns. He and she will no longer appear on official paperwork, replaced by the gender-free pronoun they. At many colleges and universities, incoming students are asked to select their preferred personal pronouns. As Faith Sailee commented on CBS Sunday Morning, “Preferred pronouns aren’t going away because cultural changes that involve shedding light on the human condition generally stick around.”

So history and contemporary life both make a credible case for singular they. But now, with the taboo lifting, expect unintended consequences. Writers will become increasingly sloppy with pronoun-antecedent agreement. Here is a sentence from a recent article by a professional journalist: “Neither Indiana nor any other state has described their religious-rights laws as discriminatory.” Change “their” to “its.” No gender issues there; the writer simply botched it.

When an antecedent includes or implies both sexes, old-school types sometimes must resort to the clumsy phrase he or she, himself or herself, etc.: Every student has done his or her homework. Writers despise he or she, which may be barely tolerable once but becomes preposterous beyond that: Every student has done his or her homework, and he or she will be expected to discuss his or her work in class. That hopeless sentence requires a complete rewrite.

An obstinate cadre of traditionalists will always resist singular they. “The solution here,” says Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer, “is to recognize the imperfection of the language and modify the wording.” Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage concurs. Noting that singular they “sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge,” Garner says “the only course that does not risk damaging one’s credibility is to write around the problem.”

Even with the growing acceptance of singular they, we suggest using it sparingly, especially when not a specific matter of gender. When confronted with a sentence like Every student has done their homework, you need only a moment to come up with The students have each done their homework.

 

Pop Quiz

If you have misgivings about the singular they, try rewriting these sentences culled from the print media. Our suggestions are below.

1. Everyone involved was doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled their child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business, when you come across a comedy legend, they come off as jaded.

4. Even if a hacker has your password, they won’t have the code.

 

 

Pop Quiz Answers

(Below are suggested answers; you may come up with others.)

1. All those involved were doing what they thought was right.

2. Any parent who has enrolled a child knows what to expect.

3. Sometimes in this business you come across a comedy legend who comes off as jaded.

4. Even a hacker who has your password won’t have the code.

 

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