While the big noise in the grammatical world these days is coming from the transgender community and its obsession with pronouns of choice — particularly its endorsement of “they” as a pronoun for a non-binary person — a less obtrusive but more far-reaching version of this grammatical corruption is close to cementing its place in the Canons of Official English.
Long employed by the common man in common speech but pooh-poohed by language pooh-bahs, the singular “they” in its more plebeian iterations has in recent years received the imprimatur of many of the big grammatical powers. The American Psychological Association, Merriam-Webster, and the Associated Press, for example, all to varying degrees and with various provisos, now permit the illogical usage of this plural pronoun with singular antecedents when employed in everyday speech and casual writing — and sometimes even in formal writing.
No great linguistic event has occasioned this volte-face. It has gradually been imposing itself on casual speech for decades simply by dint of convenience and because movement in the gender wars 50 years ago rendered the long-accepted generic “he” objectionable — even repugnant — and subsequent users have judged its replacements, “he or she,” “s/he,” etc., unwieldy and inelegant.
The problem dates back to the genesis of the English language when our linguistic forebears deemed not to bestow on the tongue a generic third-person singular pronoun — what the cognoscenti call an “epicene” pronoun. French, for one language, has such a pronoun; Swedish seems to be bringing one online.
“He” — the simple pronoun for a male antecedent — was instituted as the pronoun embracing both sexes in 1745 by Anne Fisher, an English schoolmistress who was allegedly the first woman to write a grammar of English and the first writer to call for “he” to serve as the universal third-person singular pronoun.
This was fine for a while . . . for a long while actually. But when the disease that has no name was given a name — call it sexism, the patriarchy, homemaking — and when language became not only descriptive but also determinative — call the date 1971 — well, you can guess what happened to a pronoun that was meant to generally apply to both sexes but had the misfortunate of being identical with the pronoun that referred to members of the “oppressive” gender as well. It made no difference that everyone, complainants included, knew that the pronoun “he” embraced both sexes; its association with men disqualified it from use.
The principal argument for the singular “they” is usage — whether we like it or not, “they” and “their” and “theirs” are commonly used with singular antecedents in everyday speech. Because of their popularity, advocates say, the terms should be institutionalized, under the rubric that language evolves and acceptable grammar comprises how people use language rather than what is canonized in traditional and formalized rules.
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, and other literary eminences occasionally employed such plural pronouns for singular antecedents, and are cited continually as evidence that we should too. Why, one can extricate such solecisms even from the pages of Holy Writ.
Language is fluid, we are told; it changes all the time. Look what happened to “thou.” “Thou” was judged stuffy a long time ago and was replaced by “you.” In the 1600s and 1700s, speakers commonly used a singular verb form when addressing one person, as in, “You was invited to the ball.” But that was phased out about the time of the Revolution, and we all agree now to use a plural verb form with a singular antecedent.
In the case of the singular “they,” the initial attack on convention came with indefinite pronouns — “anyone,” “everybody,” “none,” etc. — pronouns that are grammatically singular but can take a plural meaning. “Everyone did their homework.” When that agreement rule collapsed, the nouveau grammarians said the singular “they” was okay with unidentified, generic antecedents — “A driver drove their car”; “A student handed in their paper.”
But now it’s acceptable when referring to a specific person — “Cindy wants a bike for Christmas, and they also want training wheels for it.” So great was the jump from generic antecedents to specific, named antecedents that language maven John McWhorter led a recent New York Times column with an account of his first go at this usage.
Other advocates admit that it jars the ear — “Timmy eats their peas with a spoon” — but that doesn’t matter. They (and we) will suck it up and get used to it. “Language,” Joe Moran notes, “works as a dynamic democracy, not as rule by experts. The sticklers may not like ‘they’ (singular) but they (plural) will eventually have to bow to the inevitable.”
So, do we “sticklers” abandon all hope? We “fusty grammar scolds,” as we have been called? Are we to spend the rest of our lives speaking sentences that indicate that we can’t tell the difference between one person and two people? Is the singular “they” a fait accompli?
Maybe. Dennis Baron, of the University of Illinois, likes to tell us whingers, “If you complain about a particular issue, it’s usually . . . too late to do anything about it.”
And, true, in the face of triumphalist rhetoric from the singular “they” side — grammatical trash talk — we prescriptivists (another pejorative) seem to be on our back foot. After decades of vociferous outrage, the pushback has become a feeble whimper in recent years, as more and more linguists capitulate to the grammar-is-what-people-say position. (RELATED: 2021: The Year of the Pronoun)
Most of the fiery opposition comes from a few years back. After decrying its usage as the easy way out of pronoun problems, Jen Doll, writing in the Atlantic in 2013, rips the singular “they” a new one: “The easy fix is not necessarily the best one, and they is not the solution to our pronoun ills. The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly. Stop the singular they. Stop it now.”
Barring the coining of a sex-neutral third-person pronoun — there are no such neologisms on the horizon — the pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent. It’s the rule we currently have. The singular “they” violates that rule, not to mention the laws of common sense. “One” has a definition, and “they” has a definition. The two words mean two different things. One person is not a “they.” Two or more persons are a “they.” Ergo, the only way Timmy can eat their peas with a spoon is if he were walking around the table eating everyone else’s peas. If he’s eating the peas on the plate in front of him with a spoon, he’s eating his peas.
It’s not like we lack alternatives to the singular “they.” Some of these come easily to mind: recasting the sentence to avoid the pronoun; repeating the name of the person (or noun) in question or using the word “one”; casting the sentence in the plural — changing the singular antecedents and pronouns to plural antecedents and pronouns; using the imperative mood; using “he or she” and its cousins (“his/hers,” “himself/herself,” etc.); alternating “he’s” with “she’s,” possibly by paragraph. Or, the most radical of all solutions: sticking with the generic “he.”
Some of these remedies are clunky, to be sure. Nobody wants to write, much less read, a sentence like “Every student must bring his or her lunch, and he or she will be expected to eat all of his or her food.” Alternating pronouns, by sentence or paragraph, call attention to themselves and imperil reader concentration. And the generic “he” may simply be a bridge too far in today’s world.
But we are an inventive people in command of an ever-creative language, and we possess the facility to express ourselves in countless ways. Indeed, the “woke” world of 2021 demands language awareness. If the “woke” hounds can insist on hypersensitivity around terms of controversy — many are the words one cannot say without risk of censure or worse, myriad are the phrases that would throw a writer into disrepute if not cancellation — then smart people who tap on keyboards can easily write around the singular “they.” It is the writer’s task to craft sentences that comport with the axioms of the language. But many aren’t doing this, because of . . . what? . . . laziness? ideology?
A faint but evanescent note of encouragement does crop up from none other than the Chicago Manual of Style. The latest edition (17th) of the copyeditors’ bible recommends against the use of the singular “they” in formal writing, except for non-binary situations. “They and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing, though they are steadily gaining ground. For now . . . be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.”
For now. Doesn’t exactly fill the soul with hope, does it?
And it makes one worry whether the authorities will cave in the face of the next attack on grammar, like the push to accept “me” as a subject pronoun. Me and you know that will never happen, though, right?