Monday 30 May 2016

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Singular “They”

Some of you may have noticed a shocking lapse of grammar in one of my recent posts, namely,

Yes, I used the pronoun they (plural) with the antecedent reader (singular). Cue pearl-clutching.

Thirty years ago my they would have been corrected to he, but today that kind of sexism looks antiquated at best. Most current guides advise using the gender-neutral but clunky he or she, or better yet, making the subject plural so it matches they.

  • Your readers instinctively expect parallel construction, even if they couldn’t define it on a game show.

All astronauts must wash their own spacesuits.

The best way to avoid arguments between your antecedents and their pronouns is usually to recast your sentences.

  • X Each astronaut must wash their own spacesuit.
  • All astronauts must wash their own spacesuits.

  • X If anyone needs ammo, they can use my toenail clippings.
  • If you need ammo, you can use my toenail clippings.
  • Anyone who needs ammo can use my toenail clippings.

However, some sentences stubbornly refuse to be recast. Writers may find themselves creating syntactically convoluted rats’ nests in an effort to avoid either sexism or pronoun errors.

The They Option

Using they as a gender-neutral alternative to he has long been accepted in spoken English, and it has become more useful as folks with unconventional gender identities have emerged into greater cultural visibility. Even in written English, there are signs here and there of a thaw in attitudes. The Washington Post created a furor in grammar circles last year when it announced it would be allowing the use of they as a singular pronoun. Some editors have followed suit, but most are still firmly on the traditional bandwagon, and guides like The Chicago Manual of Style warn against using the singular they in formal writing.

Certainly it would be the wrong choice for a government document or an academic paper, but in the fast-and-loose blogosphere the singular they hardly raises an eyebrow. You could even argue that such usage conveys an appropriate breezy informality. As always, it’s a question of audience and tone.

Shall I compare you to a summer's day?

Here’s a secret you probably weren’t told in English class: language changes. Once upon a time, most English-speaking people addressed each other as thou. You was reserved for groups of two or more, or to show polite deference—much like the French vous. Grammar is important, yes; but it’s not written in stone.

So I’ve decided to embrace the singular they in this blog, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can go jump off a stack of dictionaries.

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