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Jan 08 2007

The Singular “They”

They1And 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.”

It’s grammar.

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.”

HeThis 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.”

They2Which is why I’m advocating the singular “they.”

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.

YouBut 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 language
 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.

They3But 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.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Laura Deal

    I completely agree with you about the singular use of “they”, but I think you (or rather Cecil Adams) may be wrong about the history of “you”.
    My understanding is that “”ye” was the plural form, “you” the formal singular, and “thou” the informal singular.
    This seems to be supported by the usage of old English that I’m familiar with. For example: “Hear Ye, Hear Ye” would mean “Listen Y’all” and there are scenes in Shakespeare where the social dynamic shifts as one character stops addressing another character as “you” and begins calling them “thou”.
    This doesn’t alter the point you are making one bit. I just had to point it out anyway. Also, I’d like to say that I think it would be great to bring back “ye” or at least bring “y’all” into greater usage north of the Mason-Dixon line. I like being able to be clear about whether I’m addressing a group or just an individual.
    Geekily thine,

  2. 2
    Greta Christina

    You know, I couldn’t remember what exact shifts the second person pronouns had taken over the centuries, so I looked them up on Wikipedia, and that’s where I got my info about “you,” “ye,” “thou,” and “thee.” The entries are at:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You
    and
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thee
    And now that I look at the entries more closely: According to the Wikifolk, “ye/you” was plural or formal singular (nominative and objective cases), and “thou/thee” was singular informal (ditto). But it is Wikipedia we’re talking about here, so it could be wrong.
    And I agree with you about “y’all.” It’s actually my one real argument against the singular “they”: if we start using “they” as both singular and plural, we’ll have the same occasional confusion we do now with the singular and plural “you.” (Will we start having to say “th’all” when we mean “they” in the plural?) I personally think the benefit of the gender-neutral pronoun far outweighs that disadvantage, but it is something to think about.

  3. 3
    Laura Deal

    I think that there will be fewer problems with “they” being used for both singular and plural than there are with “you” being used that way.
    With “they” the writer will be discussing other people and therefore either will have named them previously or will be writing about an abstract person. So the reader will either have a previous clue, or the singular/plural question won’t really matter. With “you” the writer is much less likely to have named the person or people being addressed and it could be an abstact group or it could be a message for one particular person. This can make a big difference. 2nd person prounouns are just more personal than 3rd person prounouns and therefore clarity seems more vital.

  4. 4
    Jon Berger

    The only problem that occurs to me is that the singular use of “they” has been common for quite a long time, but in a way that suggests “I wish to conceal the sex of the person I’m talking about,” rather than “the sex of the person I’m talking about is irrelevant to this discussion.” As in “Oh, I’m just going to the dance with, umm, a friend, and they’re a really good driver and they don’t drink or anything.” I’m sure this will become less true as the use of “they” in a purely gender-neutral sense becomes more common — and it is — but right now, that’s my first thought when I hear “they” used in the singular: “hmm, what is this speaker trying to hide?”

  5. 5
    jrb

    I particularly liked the illustrations you chose.

  6. 6
    sexposfemme

    I agree with everything you said, although I’m still confused about the old use of “you”. I was under the impression that “ye” was plural, “thou” either plural also or singular formal, as in “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “you” singular.
    The other reason I use singular they is because of transgendered people. If they’re (see?) in transition it makes use of “they” makes it possible to honor that or even protect them.

  7. 7
    Laura Deal

    Thou was singular informal : used with those one was familiar with or those below one in station, much like the word tu in spanish. Thee was the form of thou used as a direct object.
    You was singular formal: used with strangers or those above one in station, like the spanish usted.
    Everyone addressed and was adressed by God as thou, Queen Elizabeth reportedly addressed everyone but her horse as thou.
    Ye was the plural (I believe both both formal and informal).
    This is what I learned in Elizabethan 101 back in the 80s when you had to take classes to be a street actor at Renn Faire. There may be different rules for different eras.

  8. 8
    Sili

    Which is why I’m advocating the singular “they.”

    Thank you!

    Thankyouthankyouthankyou.

  9. 9
    ben

    This is actually fairly convincing.

    For the singular, we should be using “they is”, right? “They are” is obviously plural.

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