And we’re back to the heavy topics. No, it’s not sex. It’s not atheism. It’s not the relative merits of “Harry Potter” versus “Lord of the Rings.”
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been deeply buried in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I plan to blog about it as soon as I finish it — but one of his tangents reminded me about a rant I’ve been wanting to make about the third person singular pronoun. In the section where he talks about the consciousness-raising potential of Darwin, he makes an analogy to the consciousness-raising potential of non-sexist language:
“Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this. But if we can just get over the clunking infelicity of the language, it raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race. Man, mankind, the Rights of Man, all men are created equal, one man one vote — English too often seems to exclude woman. When I was young, it never occurred to me that women might feel slighted by a phrase like ‘the future of man’. During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised.”
This sums up neatly, I think, both the sexist insult of using “he/him/his” as the generic third person singular personal pronoun — and the clumsiness of trying to be both politically and grammatically correct by using “he or she.” (Douglas Hofstadter also does some excellent writing about this in Metamagical Themas — including a mind-blowing essay in which he uses “whites” as the generic term for people instead of “men.”)
So what do we do instead?
Many people have invented gender-neutral pronouns to replace “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or hers,” etc. And not one of these pronouns has caught on. The problem (according to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, anyway) is that, while we invent new words all the time and at an astonishing pace, it’s nearly impossible to invent replacements for words that perform complicated and largely unconscious grammatical placeholder functions. Those words get learned very young, they’re deeply rooted in our brain, and trying to replace them is like trying to uproot an oak tree with a toothpick. They evolve very slowly, if at all, and the most we can do is to shuffle them around a bit.
Simple nouns and verbs and adjectives? Absolutely. We make them up on a daily basis. Pronouns and articles? Not so much.
And “it” doesn’t work. We clearly see “it” as referring to objects, and using it to refer to people is, well, de-personalizing. Dehumanizing, even. Like in Silence of the Lambs: “It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.”
It’s not a made-up word, so it has much more potential to be adopted. In fact, in its current usage (third person plural), both its literal meaning and its grammatical placeholding functions are extremely close to the meaning/function I’m advocating — so close that expanding its meaning/function would be relatively painless.
In fact, not only can it be used this way — it’s already being used this way. In casual conversation, anyway.
And this, I think, is the best argument going for it. No other gender-neutral third person singular personal pronoun has made anywhere near as much headway as the singular “they.” Not only can it be used this way — it is being used this way. You can’t say that about any other alternative.
I think the singular “they” is the best solution we have. And I think we should move towards incorporating it — in casual conversation, but also (gradually) in more and more formal usage as well. I’m not saying we should get rid of “he” and “she” — gendered pronouns are useful, too. But when we want a third person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown, I think “they” is going to be our best bet.
Now, the big argument against the singular “they” is that it’s ungrammatical. “They” means third person plural, the argument goes, not third person singular, and that’s the end of it.
But I have two counter-arguments to that. One is the argument from precedent. We already use “you” to mean both second person singular and second person plural. And we do so with minimal confusion. Our grammar is obviously capable of using the same pronoun for singular and plural — there’s nothing in the structure of our language to disallow it.
In fact, “you” wasn’t always both the plural form of the second person pronoun — it used to be the second person plural only, with the now-archaic “thou” taking the second person singular. Clearly our grammar is capable, not just of having one pronoun for both singular and plural, but of allowing for a switch from one to the other. (A quick shout-out to Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope,” for pointing out the plural-singular shift of “you” in a discussion of this very issue.) The singular “they” also has centuries of literary precedent, including Shakespeare, Thackeray, Austen, the King James Bible, and others.
The second — and probably more controversial — argument is my general descriptivist approach to language. To say that a word or usage isn’t correct because it isn’t grammatical is, in my opinion, circular reasoning. It’s grammatical if it’s generally accepted as such by everybody who uses the languageâŠ as long as it doesn’t violate the basic structure of the language (and I believe the abovementioned precedent proves that the singular “they” does not). Grammatical is as grammatical does. Language changes — in fact, change is essential to the way language works — and usages that were considered incorrect 100 years ago now are now accepted without argument by even the most passionate prescriptivist. (And vice versa.)
(BTW, if you’re unfamiliar with the arcane lingo of linguistic squabbles and don’t know what the hell “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist” mean, Wikipedia has an excellent entry on the subject. Short version: Prescriptivists tend to think people should use language according to rules set out in grammar books, and are more likely to resist changes in language; descriptivists tend to think grammar books should describe the rules of language as it’s used, and are more likely to embrace changes in language. The difference is often described as if it were between two clearly opposing camps, but in fact it’s more of a shades-of-gray spectrum.)
Now, while I am a fairly ardent descriptivist, I’m not a hard-line one. I understand that, while language has to change in order to work, it also has to have some consistency in order to work. If we don’t agree on what words mean (not to mention the structures we put them together with), then the language just becomes nonsense. And while I think it’s silly to resist changes in the language just on principle, I think it is worth debating whether any given change is necessary, desirable, comprehensible, and graceful.
But I think the singular “they” is all of the above. It’s needed, it’s wanted, it’s simple, and it works. And the more it gets used, the less awkward it will sound, and the more quickly it’ll be accepted as standard usage.
So let’s use it.