The Singular They

It’s exciting when English usage makes news, and that’s what happened last week. The American Dialect Society voted overwhelmingly to make the singular they its Word of the Year. (You can read all about it in the Washington Posthttp://wpo.st/jVm31)

So much information is packed into this story that it amounts to a mini-course in linguistics.

English is a quirky language. Unlike Spanish, German, French, Welsh, and many other languages, it doesn’t have genders for most nouns. (Actually English once did have genders – those were lost a thousand years ago.)

Nor do we have a gender-neutral singular pronoun. (Again, we once did – but we lost it.)

All we have left are gender-neutral plural pronouns (they, them, their). Our English-speaking ancestors were fine with this. They didn’t miss the singular pronoun at all. They happily used they, them, and their instead.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Suppose your boss asks about the status of a project your team is doing. She might say, “Let’s ask everyone to write up their views about the proposal before they come to the next meeting.”

We all write and talk that way. Great authors write and talk that way. (Click here for examples.) But grammarians want us to rework this sentence so it reads like this:

“Let’s ask everyone to write up his or her views about the proposal before he or she comes to the next meeting.”

Gack.

It’s clumsy. But that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Or is it?

And this is where it gets interesting. In the 18th century, when most people were happily using they and their as singular pronouns, some self-appointed grammarians decided that English should be more mathematical.

Example: Everyone is a singular word. (Evidence: It contains the word “one,” and it’s used with “is,” not “are,” as in “Everyone is here.”) So those 18th-century grammarians insisted that we use the singular “he,” not “they,” with anyone, someone, anybody, every, each, and similar words.

Under their well-meaning tutelage, our example above turned into this:

“Let’s ask everyone to write up his views about the proposal before he comes to the next meeting.”

The men who argued this way had no background in linguistics. They weren’t even English teachers. The most famous of them – Lindley Murray – was an attorney. But that made-up rule found its way into some bestselling grammar books. English teachers picked it up, and soon English lost a perfectly workable practice – using “they” as a singular word.

Fast forward to the 20th century. Lindley Murray and his friends lived in a male-dominated world. But he clearly was inappropriate in modern workplaces that were welcoming more and more women. So our sentence became:

“Let’s ask everyone to write up his or her views about the proposal before he or she comes to the next meeting.”

As I said before, gack.

Here’s where our mini-course in linguistics comes in. Many people (I’m one) grew up believing that English usage is carved in stone, sort of like the Ten Commandments. But it’s not.

Languages are created by people. Languages don’t have to be logical or mathematical. A language has two requirements: It has to work, and we have to agree about how to use it. 

That means I can’t use ain’t when I write a scholarly paper or go for a job interview. But I can use ain’t at home. You get the idea.

What’s happening right now is that many people are getting fed up with good old Lindley Murray, and they want to put English back the way it was. The Washington Post has already revised its style guide to accept the singular they. As I said before, the American Dialectic Society also voted for the singular they. And of course many people never stopped using it, even though English teachers kept pleading with us to use “his or her” instead.

So…let’s see what we’ve learned from this story:

  • English has no official rules. Every group can choose the rules and practices it wants to follow
  • Rules come at us from many directions
  • We can’t trust everyone who claims to be a language expert
  • The English language has undergone drastic changes over its history
  • Languages are social tools. They’re not meant to be logical or mathematical
  • Most people switch back and forth from formal English (used in school and the workplace) and informal English (used with family and friends)
  • We tend to use formal English when we write (as I’m doing here) and informal English when we talk

If you look at English from this broad perspective, you can see that there’s no reason to panic when someone uses “they” as a singular pronoun. It’s an old and respected practice that became discredited through an accident of history.

I, for one, am celebrating the courageous people who are voting against “his or her.” For years now I’ve been revising sentences to avoid that @#$%! construction. For example:

To get the best deal on a car loan, everyone should check his or her credit history before he or she visits a car dealership to purchase his or her next car.  YUCK

To get the best deal on a car loan, consumers should check their credit history before they visit a car dealership to purchase their next car.  MY VERSION

(I love this comment from Geoff Nunberg on NPR’s Fresh Air: “if I could have back all the time I’ve wasted writing my way around a perfectly grammatical singular “they,” I could have added another book or two to my name.” My thanks to Lois Smith for pointing me to Nunberg’s essay.)

Looks like the day is coming when I won’t have to rewrite those “they” sentences anymore. Fist pump!

Lindley Murray

Lindley Murray

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