Hello, Singular “They”!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

I’m celebrating a recent story from the Associated Press. Last week the AP announced that it has started allowing journalists to use “they” as a singular pronoun. (You can read more about their decision here.)

You might be surprised that I – one of the crankiest grammar curmudgeons on this planet – am happy about the change. If so, I have another surprise for you: I switched over to the singular “they” several months ago.

Before I go any further, I probably need to explain what all the fuss is about. English teachers (including me) have long railed against sentences like this one:

Does each member know that they’re supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  SINGULAR “THEY”

Here’s the corrected version:

Does each member know that he or she is supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  BETTER

The reasoning is that “each member” is singular, so you need a singular pronoun: he or she. I used to be a believer, and some years ago I published not one but two English textbooks that came out sternly against the singular “they.”

Like many writers, I found that “he or she” clumsy and annoying, and I’ve always refused to use it. But there are workarounds, and I included them in my textbooks. My personal favorite has always been to make a problematic sentence plural:

Do members know that they’re supposed to bring a covered dish to the meeting?  BETTER

Last year, though, I finally started to rebel. I was writing an article for a police blog about strategies to help keep cops safe when they’re working alone during a traffic stop. One popular trick is for an officer to open and close a door on the police car twice to make it seem that there are two cops at the scene, not just one.

Another trick is for an  officer working alone to use “we” instead of “I.” So the officer might walk over to a waiting car and ask, “Do you know why we pulled you over today?”

So there I was, tapping away on my keyboard, writing “cops” and “officers” so that I could avoid that @#$%! “he or she”: But wait a minute! I wanted to emphasize that the cop was alone on the highway and dealing with a potentially dangerous driver. So I didn’t want to write “cops” or “officers.”

On the other hand, if I wrote “a cop,” I was obliged to write “he or she” and “him or her” throughout my article. The final piece would be wordy and clumsy.

And so – with trembling fingers – I used the singular “they” and “their” throughout my article. Here’s a sample:

An officer who’s working alone should always be aware of their surroundings.  SINGULAR THEY

When I finished writing my article, I nervously submitted it to the website. Guess what – the editor accepted my post and paid my fee!

Yes, I felt a few tremors under my feet. But I also thought regretfully about all the time I’ve wasted over the years revising sentences to avoid that damned “he or she” construction.

There’s another reason – and this one might surprise you – why I’ve decided to go with the singular “they”: It’s actually more correct than our clumsy “he or she” practice, at least from a historical perspective.

Grammatically speaking, our modern English language is a stripped-down and diminished version of what it once was. We’ve lost most of our verb conjugations and noun declensions. Many of the word endings that once denoted case, tense, and number are gone, and instead we rely heavily on word order.

Somewhere along the way, English also lost its gender-neutral singular pronoun. Our English-speaking forefathers and foremothers never noticed its disappearance. They happily used “they” – until Lindley Murray (an 18th-century attorney who’s the villain of this piece) declared that “they” was wrong.

Everyone caved in. Well, not everyone. Writers and teachers went along with Murray under the mistaken belief that he knew what he was talking about. (He didn’t). Meanwhile everybody else kept using “they” as they always had.

And so it is that centuries later, students walk into English classrooms and are surprised to learn that a language pattern they’ve always used in conversation – and heard their parents and grandparents and, well, almost everyone else using – is wrong.

That abuse of the English language is coming to an end, and I’m doing my bit to help the movement along. Last week I deleted the “no-singular-they” rule from a pronoun handout I’d been using for years.

It’s a new era! And guess what – life still seems pretty normal, despite the change. We will survive this…and so will the English language.

By the way – did you notice that I slipped a singular “they” into today’s post?

Meanwhile everybody else kept using “they” as they always had.



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