You, thou, they, who?


I’ve got to thank my students, who helped me out with this pronoun stuff. It’s a habit, but it’s not too hard to break.

Yes, practice—I am trying my best to master this new way of using they despite the fact that, make no mistake, it’s hard. In contrast to the deliberateness of writing, speaking casually is a largely subconscious, not to mention very rapid, act. In addition, pronouns, like conjunctions and suffixes, are a very deeply seated feature of language, generated from way down deep in our minds, linked to something as fundamental to human conception as selfhood in relation to the other and others. I’ve been using they in one way since the late 1960s, and was hardly expecting to have to learn a new way of using it decades later. I thought I had English pretty much under my belt.

We’ve been trained for years to address people one way, and he doesn’t even mention one aspect to it: not acknowledging the gender of the person you’re talking about has been considered offensive.

But as McWhorter explains, “they” is fine as a plural pronoun, has been for centuries, and has only been shunned by those weird grammarians who try to impose the structure of old dead languages on English. I’ve been finding it easier and easier to adapt to reasonable pronoun usage.

Comments

  1. rpjohnston says

    I actually found it pretty easy to adapt…I am autistic, and while I can mostly communicate fine I can’t do it automatically like other people can, I have to really think about what I’m saying, and then concentrate on making the words. So if somebody talks to me it will be a second or two before I can respond at best (longer if I have to think of something other than a few common phrases). And yeah that makes trying to get into conversations during those little 1/10 second pauses an absolute nightmare…but anyway, since my speech has always been deliberate anyway, I was already using “they” in cases where I wasn’t certain I should use gender, and it was fairly easy to just expand that to cases where I was certain I SHOULDN’T use gender.

  2. says

    I internalized the use of “they” by using it for nearly everyone on the internet. It’s a perfect use case, because I really don’t know most people’s genders.

  3. tomh says

    @ #1
    I think the mistake stems from the original, when McWhorter writes, “It was the schoolteacher and writer Anne Fisher whose English primer of 1745 began the notion that it’s somehow bad to use they in the plural…,” when they mean singular. (See what I did there?) It certainly confuses the issue.

  4. says

    Honestly, the only problem I have ever had with it is simply that it can create instances, even in common usage, of ambiguity. I.e., when you say, “They believe X.”, do you mean a single individual or a group? Every other pronoun is specifically “singular”. The actual choice to use they thus automatically creates a situation where you have to then either hope the other person doesn’t think you are talking about an entire group of people, or you have to expand on your statement, to clarify just how many people you are actually talking about. Its that, and only that, aspect of it which suggests that a new, singular, pronoun would be more useful. After all, all uses of “they” in singular, in literature, or other contexts, tend to universally be used as after we already know the identity of the person, or group, to which it is being applied. It is almost never used in a context where the identity is an unknown, and ambiguity is possible. I.e., you will see, “X people have Y opinion on a subject. They also….”, but I can’t remember a single instance, ever, without at least a footnote, denoting who is being referenced, in which the structure of a statement followed the pattern of, “They hold such and such opinion. The group also…” It just doesn’t happen, because its problematic, at best, to use a pronoun which is “both” singular and plural, outside of a context in which there is any plausible way to determine which version is being implied in the statement from context.

    I suspect it is this that is causing “most” people cognitive dissonance over the whole issue, and imo, rightly so, even if they are doing a horrible job of explaining why they have the problem (and possibly finding other uglier biases rising to the surface in the process).

    This isn’t, of course, an insurmountable problem, but it is a problem that is completely unique to the use of a terms that require context to know which version you are actually using. Usually these problems are a result of “like sounding” words, rather than dual purpose ones, but.. its still the same issue – which meaning are you using, if I don’t know the context you are using them in?

  5. tomh says

    @ #5

    Every other pronoun is specifically “singular”.

    You? Second-person personal pronoun, both singular and plural.

  6. blf says

    I’m in the process of “switching”, and trying to refer to individuals as they (unless I unambiguously know they have another preference). It’s breaking the habit of many yonks. As poopyhead says, “it’s not too hard to break” the older habit(s), but not automatic / trivial either…

  7. Infophile says

    @5 and @6:

    And a lot of regions have adapted variants of “you” to handle ambiguous cases when they do come up (“you all”, “y’all”, “all youse”). So we can easily handle it with “they.” In another hundred years, maybe we’ll even come full circle and start mocking Texans for saying “th’all.”

  8. says

    Yes, “y’all” may have been originally created/spread in order to make the plural case clear.

    However, in some places it entirely took over every instance of “you”, rendering the singular and plural once again indistinguishable. Thus, I believe (though tell me if I’m wrong) came “all y’all”.

    =============
    From the OP:

    not acknowledging the gender of the person you’re talking about has been considered offensive.

    YES. If you don’t use gender, it was taken to be a statement that the person referenced wasn’t doing gender sufficiently clearly – and was thus one of those trans/intersex freaks. Because real, human adults are only men or women, never anything else, and it’s always completely obvious to which category a real human adult belongs.

  9. stwriley says

    I must admit, I still struggle with using “they” as a singular pronoun. Like PZ, I’ve been using it only as a plural since the late 1960s so it’s pretty well ingrained that way. Worse yet for me, I was raised by an English professor, so I have the rules pretty firmly drilled into my subconscious. It’s not that I have any objection to the change in usage (unlike some modern usage which just irks me, like using “pleaded” for “pled”) but I can almost never remember it in casual conversation, at least when my mind is on something else. What we really need in English is a new neutral pronoun other than “it”, which was and is considered offensive to use of people. Someone want to coin one?

  10. Stevko says

    It would be interesting if we made a verb following singular they also singular. As in “they believes” or “they is” instead of “they believe” and “they are”.

    Although, now that I wrote it down, I do not like the idea that much.

  11. says

    @6 “You? Second-person personal pronoun, both singular and plural.”

    I would argue that, “you” is not ambiguous for the simple reason that the “target” of the the statement is explicitly being referenced. If a person is addressing a group, and not pointing at a specific individual, there is no ambiguity suggesting that they are referencing some entirely different group, or, when directed at an individual, it tends to be fairly obvious, from the direct and explicit usage, in 99% of all cases, that its referring to that specific person.

    There is a minor deviation to this however, in that it may, sometimes, (and I have done this without thinking carefully enough about what is being implied), in written speech, as a tool to create a hypothetical, as in, “You do X.”, without explicitly stating, “Hypothetically, if you did X.”

    This is, however, the only context that I am aware of in which ambiguity is allowed, or even possible, and its meant, as I said, to be a purely implied hypothetical context of, “I am placing you in the shoes of the person I am describing, so that I can explain my point.”

    But, otherwise, what everyone else said – in most cases, when ambiguity “is” possible, there has often been modifiers added, to indicate whether the plural version is being used. And.. sure, I suppose its… plausible, that such modifiers will be added, as “they” becomes commonly used to reference individuals in every day speech, but.. it just seems weird to contemplate what that would be at the moment.

  12. tomh says

    What we really need in English is a new neutral pronoun other than “it”, which was and is considered offensive to use of people. Someone want to coin one?

    There have been efforts for the past 170 years (at least) to do just that. Some suggested replacements ne (1850), le (1884), se (1938), ve (1970), e (1977), ala (1988), pers (1992), wun (1995), and more recently ze and zir and others, I’m sure, that I’m not familiar with. To my mind, the reason that none take hold is that, in English at least, language can’t be imposed from the top down. A decree that people should use a certain word never works. Language changes as a groundswell, from the bottom up, and that seems to be what’s happening with the singular they.

  13. lumipuna says

    In addition, pronouns, like conjunctions and suffixes, are a very deeply seated feature of language, generated from way down deep in our minds, linked to something as fundamental to human conception as selfhood in relation to the other and others.

    Funny how I seem to have developed these patterns, to some extent, during my adult life as an ESL speaker. I still remember being a beginner, struggling with not only simple word choices but the novel linguistic concept of choosing a gender-appropriate (binary) pronoun. Now it’s much more natural, but I know I’d struggle to not use “she” for the AFAB trans people I vaguely know.

  14. hotspurphd says

    @5 “because its problematic, at best, to use a pronoun which is “both” singular and plural, outside of a context in which there is any plausible way to determine which version is being implied in the statement from context.“

    Don’t Pronouns, if used correctly always have an antecedent? And wouldn’t that antecedent indicate something singular or plural meaning?

  15. hotspurphd says

    @5 “because its problematic, at best, to use a pronoun which is “both” singular and plural, outside of a context in which there is any plausible way to determine which version is being implied in the statement from context.“

    Don’t Pronouns, if used correctly always have an antecedent? And wouldn’t that antecedent indicate something singular or plural meaning?

  16. bachfiend says

    German makes the use of pronouns much easier. The pronoun used depends on the gender of the noun being referred to. ‘Das Mädchen’ (the girl) is a neuter noun. The personal pronoun used is ‘es’ (it) and the possessive pronoun is ‘sein’ (its or usually his). ‘Die Person’ is a feminine noun, and the corresponding pronouns are sie und ihr. There are masculine and feminine forms of nouns – such as der Student and die Studentin, which take the appropriate pronouns.

    In the German translation of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ the translator guessed the gender of a name of a new student at the allocation of the houses wrongly and used the wrong gender which only became apparent in the 6th volume.

    There was a recent news story in Perth, Australia reporting the police fining a cyclist $400 for using a cell phone while cycling. The journalist in reporting the story started by writing that ‘the cyclist’ (meaning that he – and I’m assuming that it was a male journalist – didn’t know whether it was a male or female cyclist) was fined by the police for using the phone while riding ‘their bike’ (since he didn’t know whether it should have been ‘his bike’ or ‘her bike’). The way the story was written, it was ambiguous making it appear that the cyclist was fined for using a cell phone while cycling on the police’s bike. Which to me sounds like theft.

  17. woozy says

    But as McWhorter explains, “they” is fine as a [singular] pronoun, has been for centuries


    Ariella isn’t wearing the green one. They think it’s time to wear their other one.

    That is modern. It has never been done before. Refers to a specific singular.

    Tell each student they can hand in their paper at the front office.

    Modern usage. Unspecific singular but arguably in a group. One of many.

    Back in Middle English, the Sir Amadace tale includes, “Each man in their degree.” The Bard has Antipholus of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors chirp, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend.” Thackeray has Rosalind toss off in Vanity Fair, “A person can’t help their birth.”

    I’d argue that those were not singular but a non-specific one of a general plural. But they do apply to the “Tell each student they can hand in their paper at the front office” example. (Actually that Thackeray example is pretty close to “The passenger in the aisle seat must store their belongings in the overhead bin”.)

    The first example “Ariella isn’t wearing the green one. They think it’s time to wear their other one” does still ranckle me as Aerialla is definitely singular and “they” is not.

    Except…

    Isn’t it even more senseless that in German, sie (or Sie) means she, polite you, and they? Or what kind of sense does it make that in English, we use you in both the singular and the plural? Nothing feels more natural today, but in earlier English, thou was the second-person-singular form, and you was only used for two or more people.

    is one of the more persuasive arguments that it should and will change.

    Yeah, I’m going to lose this argument. And probably within the next 4 or five months.

    Although I kind of wish if we were going to change the writ in stone for colloquial context,that somehow using “one” instead of “they” had be the popular choice. It’d still be writ-in-stone technically wrong (it’s unspecific singular) but rankles me less.

    Well, okay… I will concede defeat eventually.

  18. says

    Kagehi @5

    How often is that a problem? Pronouns generally aren’t used unless it’s already established who the speaker is referring to anyway. If context already has me aware of whom “he” or “she” is, it should be enough for me to determine if “they” is an individual or a group. Considering that “they” and “them” have been used as singular pronouns for decades if not centuries without anything worse than a few English purists getting huffy it shouldn’t be a problem now. The only thing that’s changed is there are now some people who are outside of the gender binary who prefer those pronouns exclusively and that is causing some discomfort even in people who are supportive (raises hand it’s taken me a while to get used to it).

    One of my favourite things is this person Rebecca Watson tweeting about complaining about an employee who now uses “they/them” pronouns, and specifically writes “Using ‘they/them’ also causes issues because it’s plural, which in my opinion, is unprofessional and looks like a typo”. This despite the fact that the writer used “they/them” pronouns every time except once when referring directly to the employee. (Also, if you’re going to complain about something being unprofessional and looking like a typo, get your comma placement right and use a period at the end of your sentence.)

    https://twitter.com/rebeccawatson/status/922915851530940416

    The quoted piece uses “they/them” in both the singular and the plural and there’s no problem discerning who is being referred to each time.

  19. woozy says

    was fined by the police for using the phone while riding ‘their bike’ (since he [the journalist] didn’t know whether it should have been ‘his bike’ or ‘her bike’).

    Actually, I would assume the journalist was fully aware of the gender of the cyclist but was using “their” in the more modern and growing convention of simply not using gendered pronouns.

    When eventually I do concede defeat (which is not today) I will see this as a sign that it it does become natural-seeming eventually. It’s gotten to the point that if a persons name and identity is not released one almost feels that “they” is the expected usage. Which is how intuition and language feeling “natural” works. One never consciously makes the change. It’s just that slowly one usage feels more natural and the other does not.

    At least that is what I will say when I concede defeat and become a true convert. As I’m still stubbornly insisting “they is plural and wrong” I’ll say nothing of the sort. But… I’m going to lose the argument.

  20. cartomancer says

    Technically Latin does not have third-person personal pronouns – it uses the weak demonstrative pronoun is/ea/id (this or that) for he/she/it, with the plural of said demonstrative (ei/eae/ea) for plural “they”. Indeed, in Latin you can specify whether your “they” means several hes, several shes or several its. Or you can just leave pronouns out altogether and let the verb inflections tell you who is doing something, for a less emphatic statement.

  21. woozy says

    This despite the fact that the writer used “they/them” pronouns every time except once when referring directly to the employee.

    That is very ironic.

    It has become so common that using “they” when the identity or name of an individual is not specified now feels very natural. This occurred without anyone, not even those of us who insist it is wrong (I’m not conceding defeat today— maybe tomorrow…), noticing.

    On the other hand, if the individual is named then “they” still seems, to me at least, very unnatural. Which is very illogical (knowing the identity of a person doesn’t make them any more or less gendered or singular and… [Oh, my god. I just used “them” completely without thinking about it… case in point]…) but that is how usage works.

    Yep, I’m going to lose this argument… but I’m not going to concede yet… at least not at 1:46 PM PDT Sept. 9, 2018.

  22. says

    I write stories, and using singular they has created some areas of confusion (the first chapter of one book features only characters with no gender, but also a group that would also collectively be referred to as they), but it’s really not much more of a problem than repeatedly using he or she, it’s just with the additional meaning of they being plural it comes up a bit more (which would actually be less of a problem if singular forms of verbs were used in that situation but then it sounds like a Mark Twain novel so whatever).
    I’ve learned to get around it by just using brief descriptions when it sounds awkward, which diversifies it and makes it sound better anyway so now I’m using it regardless of pronoun (though it’s probably easier for me because characters are multiple species so I can always just fall back on calling them what species they are).
    All other solutions have been failures. There is no going back. THEY WILL BE ASSIMILATED.
    But in casual speech I’ve pretty much always used they anydangway.
    At this point I’ve typed and retyped and edited this comment so much I can’t remember if I’m forgetting anything so I’ll just leave with something related to comment #18:
    “The cyclist was fined by the police for using the phone while riding their bike.”
    “The cyclist was fined by the officer for using the phone while riding her bike.”
    oops hold on
    “The cyclist was fined by the police for using the phone while riding a bike.”
    Wait actually that just ignores the problem completely by using the fact that they would have been fined regardless of whose bike they were using! Okay well just use context clues everyone. Okay bye.

  23. anxionnat says

    My niece is a new student at Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, Calif. She has told me that, when being introduced to someone, it is considered polite to let the other person what your preferred pronouns are. This wasn’t the case when I was at Mills in the early 1980s. She has also told me that there are a number of gender-fluid and trans students at the college. Live and learn! I’m glad that this is happening.

  24. tomh says

    @ #23

    On the other hand, if the individual is named then “they” still seems, to me at least, very unnatural.

    Exactly. A sentence like, “Joe went to the store where they bought milk,” is just jarring. I’m afraid a generation or two will have to pass on before most accept it as sounding natural.

  25. says

    Using “they/them” as a singular pronoun for a person who wants to be called “they/them” is just kind, regardless of what you think about the plurality or singularity of proper pronoun use. If a person wants to be called “zie/zir” you try your best to call zir that, because it is kind, and “babies, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

  26. says

    As a degenerate 90s kid, “Joe went to the store, where they bought milk,” sounds perfectly fine to me. So have hope! Eventually most will accept it as sounding natural, once we’re old and saying something else the kids these days are doing sounds unnatural. I can’t wait to find out what it is!

  27. tomh says

    @ 29
    “sounds perfectly fine to me”

    That’s interesting, I’m glad you told me that. Perhaps change will come a lot sooner than I expected.

  28. tardigrada says

    Being a third-language-English speaker, “they” as a singular but using plural verbs (especially to be) just confuses me. I used to live with a flatmate who preferred they. No problem at all, after I got used to the switch. But each time one of their friends came over, she just asked if “they are in their room”. As it happened, my flatmate had a friend staying over most of the days, so I always had to be really specific to say, “yes X and Y are upstairs”, as I didn’t want either of them to get into an awkward situation. For me, it would be so much easier to say “they is” or “they are”, depending on the context.
    Yes, “you” can be confusing too, especially if “you” are getting invited to something. Does it include your family too? But those ambiguous situations don’t come up as often and aren’t as diffcult to maneuver, at least not for me. That’s more a reason to change the verbs for “you” as well as for “they”, not to add to the confusion.

    In the end it’s about respect. I use preferred names, so why not pronouns? If I don’t do it because it’s too hard, I put my slight discomfort above the needs of others. A bit like giving Asian people English names, because people can’t/couldn’t be assed to make an effort.

  29. tbp1 says

    We just all need to learn Finnish. Hän is the third person singular pronoun and is gender-free. It means equally he, she or it.

    Of course Finnish has 15 cases. (Although as a Finnish friend told me, “We only use 10 in everyday conversation.”

  30. fentex says

    A sentence like, “Joe went to the store where they bought milk,” is just jarring.

    Not to me.

    I’m in my fifties and I’ve always used ‘they’ as a non-gendered singular pronoun (although I was perfectly well aware of the suppossed rules) – and not because it was promoted as a non-sexist alternative but because it was (New Zealand born as raised) natural for me.

    I wonder if it’s wide spread among New Zealanders? Some small difference in national dialect?

    I do have a vague, though not certain, feeling people who thought thremseves better educated took care to use ‘he’ (reflecting the prescriptive nature of the rule).

  31. rozyczka says

    In Ann Leckie’s book Ancillary Justice the Radch language doesn’t have gendered pronouns. Ann represents this in english by just using she/her for every character.
    At times later in the book we move to locations where the local language does use gendered pronouns, so in english suddenly we are referring to everyone as he or she. I found switching to gendered pronouns a bit jarring, almost barbaric.

  32. says

    Just to point out the deadly obvious in this discussion: names are also identifiers, and can be used as pronoun substitutes where necessary.

    I say this as a regular reader of fanfiction and more particularly slash fanfiction, where the vexed question of who is doing what with which to whom and for which reason can often become quite confusing when all you have to refer to as a reader is a set of identical pronouns. Names make it a lot easier to make sense of things.

    So in a sentence such as: “They don’t like them; they think they’re fools”, where singular and plural “they” are being used together, names can instead be used for the sake of greater clarity. Thus: “Chris doesn’t like language absolutists; they think language absolutists are fools” – thus making it clear the person referred to by the singular “they” is Chris, whose gender, for the sake of this argument is both unknown and irrelevant. Alternatively: “Chris doesn’t like language absolutists; Chris thinks they’re fools” – where the plural “they” is being used to refer to language absolutists of all gender identities.

  33. soundeziner says

    Words and meanings change. New additions get made all the time. We always have to make an effort to use them at first, but later they become natural, no matter our age or curmudgeonliness. The next time you “text” someone or give them a “shout-out” in a “tweet”, or even “google” their “handle”, make sure put the same effort into respecting and using their desired pronouns.

  34. ike says

    tbp1 ”Hän is the third person singular pronoun and is gender-free. It means equally he, she or it.”

    Hän in Finnish never means ”it”. A native Finnish-speaker would only ever use it to refer to people (or maybe pets in some cases). What we do is, in colloquial speech, we dispense even with hän altogether and just refer to everything – people, animals, inanimate objects, concepts, etc. – with the pronoun se, which literally means ”it”.

  35. rydan says

    Am I literally the only person in the world that has been using “they” as a singular since I was a kid 20+ years ago? One’s gender and sex are personal and not a “label” we should ever be using to describe a person. Just like it is sexist to refer to a woman by her hair color it is sexist to refer to them by their gender or sex. Finally it seems the world is catching up.

  36. lumipuna says

    What we do is, in colloquial speech, we dispense even with hän altogether and just refer to everything – people, animals, inanimate objects, concepts, etc. – with the pronoun se, which literally means ”it”.

    BTW, this use of nonpersonal pronoun for humans is highly dependent on informal colloquial style. While not automatically dehumanizing, it can be a minefield.

    Of course Finnish has 15 cases. (Although as a Finnish friend told me, “We only use 10 in everyday conversation.”)

    The use of full grammar is expected in writing but considered awkward in nearly all spoken language. Finnish kids spend time learning the full grammar and literary style during their early school years, when English kids would be learning spelling.

  37. says

    For me, the habit grew naturally out of my discussions in on-line forums long ago. When “talking” to folk with names like “YdYt5342” or “SandwichEater”, for example, it just seemed like the best way. Later, it just creeped into my spoken usage without even thinking about it.

    Might have been easier for me since I’ve never been particularly particular about grammar.

  38. kenbakermn says

    Re. Stevko’s comment about verb conjugation, it sounds odd I but I think it makes more sense to use a singular verb conjugation when using forms of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. “They is here” sounds weird but the meaning is less confusing than “they are here” when you mean only one person has arrived. That’s our two cents, I mean my two cents.

  39. Onamission5 says

    @tomh #27: Or, one could dispense with pronouns altogether in cases where use is unnecessary and simply reword to “Joe went to the store for milk” or “Joe bought milk at the store.”

  40. tomh says

    Of course, you can rewrite almost anything to eliminate pronouns. However, pronouns have been found to be useful in speech and writing. Personally, I would like the Finnish idea in #37 to take hold, and just refer to everyone as “it.” It would make things simple and eliminate any controversy. But, for some reason, English speakers don’t like to be referred to as an “it.”

  41. Onamission5 says

    “It” is strictly reserved for non human objects, so use of it to refer to humans is dehumanizing. I don’t know about elsewhere but the US has enough problems with dehumanization as things stand, as “it” is already one of the denigrating terms that bigots call trans and non binary people. I’m personally loathe to adopt bigoted insults as standard grammatical convention just so some folks can avoid being mildly uncomfortable with learning something they may find mildly awkward for an incredibly short period of time. Balanced against the proposition of widespread adoption of a trans antagonistic slur as universal pronoun, I think the lack of relative potential harm from adoption of “they” is fairly obvious, as is the potential harm from granting free social license to call people it.

  42. tomh says

    I know it will never happen, but if everyone were an it, then it wouldn’t be bigoted, would it? And I’m not uncomfortable with “they”, I’m a big fan, though it can be confusing, especially verb use with it. A singular unisex pronoun would be better, it’s just that none has ever gained a wide following.

  43. davidrichardson says

    I’ve been using ‘she’ as the impersonal pronoun for years now. If anybody asks, I just say that ‘he’ has had about a thousand years of being the impersonal pronoun in English, so why not give ‘she’ a thousand years too?

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