Editor’s Note: They Is

February, 2016

You probably missed this big news: The word of the year for 2015 is the singular “they,” according to the American Dialect Society. Excuse my hyperbole, but your reaction to this grammatical insurgency likely reveals how well you will cope with life in the 21st century.

Whether writing or speaking, most people use the singular “they” and its companion, the singular “their.” Of course, just because everyone is saying and writing it, doesn’t mean they got it right. A strict grammarian would have rewritten that previous sentence to, “Of course, just because everyone is saying and writing it, doesn’t mean he or she got it right.”

I think most of us feel that rewrite is awkward, yet we are not willing to go back 30 years to the style where “he” would represent both men and women. And alternating “he” and “she” jars our sensibilities, and forces us to keep score to ensure we are being equal. The singular “they” makes for a smoother sentence, whether spoken or written.

A sentence can often be rewritten with a plural noun so that “they” is proper even in the traditional sense. “Of course, just because millions of people are saying it, doesn’t mean they are right.” I have been making similar rewrites for many years. But that is simply a workaround, not a solution to a linguistic problem: the English language’s lack of a genderless singular pronoun.

“The English language did not provide a genderless singular pronoun, so this egalitarian society needs to create one.”

 

The singular they has a second purpose: for those occasions when you don’t know if the subject is a man or woman, or you are identifying a transgender person, who prefers not to be labeled as he or she. The honorific Mx. is slowly gaining acceptance as an alternative to Mr., Mrs., Miss and Ms., though more so in Britain than in the United States. The publishers of dictionaries say they are considering the term.

The English language did not provide a genderless singular pronoun, so this egalitarian society needs to create one. Why not just choose the word everyone is already using, the singular they?

All this brings me back to my lead paragraph: “Your reaction to this grammatical insurgency likely reveals how well you will cope with life in the 21st century.”

Our language is changing, at least partly driven by a changing culture, a culture that insists on gender equality and is becoming more accepting of those who were once outcasts, such as transgender people. Everything else is changing in our society as well, so the language we use to communicate and describe it must change, too.

We must look at a change and assess it: Is it a change for good that should be encouraged? Or is it change for the worse that should be resisted, because we are losing something important? I don’t see anything important that is lost with a singular they. What we gain is a more equalitarian society that does not immediately classify you as a woman or man. It is a necessary change. But if you can’t accept it, you may be having trouble coping with a lot of the other changes going on. Sorry, things are not going to get easier for you in the next few years.

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Author:

Steve Petranik