They: An Evolutionary Tale

During fourteen years of teaching, I’ve spent a lot of time marking the improper use of pronouns. The way that some high school students, especially younger ones, switch pronouns so fervently has driven me nearly mad. In just one paragraph, I might get something like this:

I think that teenagers shouldn’t have curfews. You know when you need to be home your parents don’t. If a teenager wants to be out late, they should be able to.

No, no, no, I reply with my red pen. The first sentence utilizes first-person voice – the writer’s voice – but begins with the flabby phrase, “I think that.” The second sentence – a run-on that’s actually two sentences and needs punctuation – changes to second-person, which should be used to speak directly to the reader, but in this case, isn’t. The sentence instead utilizes a non-voice that speaks both for the writer and for the subject of the paragraph. Finally, the third sentence shifts once again, this time to third-person, while committing an agreement error between “a teenager” singular and “they,” which is plural.

The grammarian in me cringes at the weak, inefficient, and inexact writing that is caused by pronoun errors. I’m not some schoolmarmish stickler for rules and regulations, not in the slightest, but this kind of writing I equate to a quarterback throwing the football ten feet over an open receiver’s head: we can tell who he was throwing to, but he didn’t have the remotest chance to connect and accomplish anything.

Grammar is a system, like a city’s transit system. No matter how badly you want the Main Street bus to pick you up on Third Avenue, it probably won’t. I know about the attitude that grammar is a mass of useless, erudite restrictions created to confuse otherwise competent speakers and writers, but that dim view overlooks the societal need for agreed-upon transactional standards: in traffic, in law— and in language.

Because I regard the English language and its grammar as systems that function reasonably well, I have a near-total disdain for the new fad in pronouns. It broke my heart when, in 2015, two of my favorite publications, The Atlantic and The Washington Post, endorsed “the singular they.” A few months later, in early 2016, The New York Times Magazine‘s Amanda Hess also wrote about the long history of the quandary in “Who’s They?” in which she acknowledges:

These gender-neutral constructions, which not so long ago may have sounded odd or even unthinkable to traditionalists, are becoming accepted as standard English.

While this fact of acceptance makes my writer-teacher self want to let out a primal scream a la Stanley Kowalski, Hess reminds her reader that singular they is already used commonly, especially when the gender of the person discussed is not known. True, I thought, I’ll give her that one. Then Hess threw this bone to non-believers like me:

It’s precisely the vagueness of “they” that makes it a not-so-ideal pronoun replacement. It can obscure a clear gender identification with a blurred one. Think of genderqueer people who are confident in their knowledge of their own gender identity as one that simply doesn’t fit the boxes of “he” or “she”: Calling all of them “they” can make it sound as if someone’s gender is unknowable; it’s the grammatical equivalent of a shrug.

Exactly!

I’m well aware of how language is political. Whereas a culture’s normalized values can exclude, oppress, devalue, and dominate some people and groups, those values are embedded in its language. Modern American English is rife with oppressive terminology, some of which has been dismantled in recent decades. The Political Correctness movement took dead aim at demeaning words and phrases, and though it reached absurd pinnacles that have drawn the ire of right-wingers, the movement did achieve genuine progress in affecting the ways that Americans regard each other.

Because I’m aware that language is political, I’m also aware that we’re at a watershed moment in American culture with this whole singular they business. The language is changing, and many of us don’t like it. But it isn’t as simple as saying, People who don’t like singular they must have a problem with gender neutrality or gender fluidity. That’s just not so.

Here are my ideas: As human beings, we don’t name something unless it matters to us. The first thing we find out from people we meet are their names, and we feel badly if we can’t remember someone’s name. In like manner, cultures give derogatory names to people who are viewed as problematic, who confuse norms and values, or whose lives stand in the way of hegemony. For centuries, there have been no shortage of ugly terms for people we today call lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. However, today, we are experiencing a societal effort to name – to properly and respectfully name – people who have same-sex romantic relationships, people who have both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships, and people who understand themselves to be neither male nor female. And that linguistic transition is proving difficult for many people, because the societal transition is hard. Our culture is moving away from widespread notions that heteronormative “traditional values” are the only valid way to live, and it is moving toward a system of values that is more inclusive, more tolerant, more open.

Despite being in favor a more open and accepting society, I don’t like the acceptance of the singular they. Even though I may live with it, I don’t believe that I ever will like it— and I’m not being an old fuddy-duddy who won’t get with the gender-issues program. I will readily acknowledge the shortcomings of Manichean dualism, especially regarding what gets excluded, ignored, and demeaned. No, I don’t like singular they because it is inexact. The word they, in Modern American English, is a pronoun that refers to a group of humans, animals, or other beings. (We may refer to people, dogs, or ghosts as they.) While a person can be gender-neutral, that person cannot be multiple people. And the word they refers to a group. It is plural. And to refer to one person in the plural, logic tells me, does not make sense. Therefore, grammatically, they is not the word we are looking for.

The acceptance of singular they represents a moment in the evolution of English. Just as the Great Vowel Shift changed pronunciations, just as thee and thou were dropped in favor of you, and just as Americans discarded the “u” in the spelling of the words color and  armor, so shall we now recognize they as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. If our major news outlets are accepting singular they, I feel certain that editors and publishers of other media will soon or have already. And that will happen despite my objections— and despite my difficult balancing act, standing firmly as both a social progressive who endorses the acceptance of diversity and a linguistic traditionalist who can’t condone improper usage.

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