He or She? They?

Of all the things that are controversial these days, pronouns seem like the least likely. But we’ll get back to that in a minute. What I want to talk about right now is the “singular they.”

After a long time, I have finally given in to the singular they. It goes against my prescriptivist history, but it fits in with my newer, more descriptivist views. (Prescriptivists say how language ought to be. Descriptivists say how language is actually used. I studied linguistics in college, where descriptivism reigns. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get on board. Probably my deep-seated need to be pedantic. But I digress.)

A not-so-brief, pedantic rant about the singular they. Traditionally, a singular subject goes with a singular verb, singular adjective, and singular object, like this: She likes her new house. John thinks for himself. They went to the beach with their cousins. Pretty simple, right?

Feminists pointed out the problem. Being a staunch feminist, I wanted to acknowledge women with equal pronouns. (That doesn’t sound right, somehow.) For far too long, we were told that “the masculine includes the feminine.” That is, you constructed sentences like this: Everyone preferred his own chili recipe. We were told that the “everyone” and the “his” in that sentence included women as well as men. The problem is even enshrined in our most important documents: “All men are created equal.” That was said to be equivalent to “All people are created equal” or, if the person was of the very liberal persuasion, “All men and women are created equal.”

Well, many women (including me) didn’t feel very included. Everyone didn’t specify gender, but his sure did. All men was pretty gender-specific. (And women were not afforded all the protections of the founding documents until relatively recently. There are still protections that are missing, IMNSHO. But there I go, digressing again.)

(I also had trouble with the word “gender.” I come from far enough back in the mists of time that “sex” was used for people and “gender” was used for linguistic purposes – nouns and adjectives, not just pronouns, had gender: El armadillo amarillo es sobre la mesa. El and amarillo indicate not that the armadillo was a male armadillo, but that the word armadillo was masculine linguistically. A feminine word would end in -a, like la mesa does. The table is (obviously) sexless, but the language gave it a feminine gender. But I digress at length.)

The feminist alternative was to use “his or her” (or “his/her”). This was also problematic in feminist terms. His always came first. For a long time, I (and other writers) used she/he or she throughout one paragraph and he throughout the next, if the gender wasn’t relevant. This was clumsy, took the reader out of the reading experience, and left out one sex in each paragraph. Besides, you ended up with ugly sentences like this: Everyone should bring his or her notebook because he or she will need to make notes that he or she can study.

And since the plural pronouns don’t have gender, someone came up with the bright idea of using they, them, and their instead of he, him, and his or she, her, and her. Like this: Each team member (singular) can use their (plural) own bowling shoes. You’re using a plural pronoun where before you would use a singular pronoun.

Substituting a plural pronoun for a singular one just sounds wrong to a prescriptivist. It grates on the ear. It gives them one more reason to correct people and sound like an insufferable know-it-all. That was me.

Then I started writing full-length books (ghostwriting, really). It sounded really awful to keep saying his or her multiple times in a manuscript. And alternating between she and he still left out half of the people half of the time.

Enter the singular they. (I knew I’d get around to it sooner or later.) It was met with scorn and derision by the prescriptivists. They was plural and that was that.

But descriptivists embraced they. Descriptivists insist that one can use language the way the general public actually uses it. They viewed it as correct based on the evolution of language and common usage. Besides, they argued that the singular they had a long and noble history. Even Shakespeare used it. And, at last, I got on the proverbial bandwagon. They, their, and them have now made their way into my prose. And I’m not going to apologize for it. Call me a descriptivist convert (a deadly insult among prescriptivists).

Now, on to the subject of preferred pronouns for nonbinary people. I say we should use whichever pronouns they choose to use. After all, we call people the names they prefer – first name, middle name, or nickname. Why shouldn’t people be able to use their own pronouns? It seems to me to be only polite. (I have trouble getting used to the recently created pronouns such as xe and hir. I never know how to make a sentence using them as subjects, objects, and possessives. But I digress one last time.)

Those of you among my readers who are also writers know just what I mean by all this. So do any linguists that are lurking here. I admit that it may be a bit obscure for many.

But it’s fascinating to people who are fascinated by this kind of thing. And that includes me. Nothing like a good pedantic rant to stimulate my brain cells, I always say.

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2 thoughts on “He or She? They?

  1. I can’t get on board with the relatively recent misunderstanding of then and than. It drives me to distraction when authors use them incorrectly, and it’s amazing how many do. I suppose it’s inevitable that they will end up in a modern dictionary as exchangeable, all thanks to spell check.


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