Arrant Pedantry

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Stupidity on Singular They

A few weeks ago, the National Review published a singularly stupid article on singular they. It’s wrong from literally the first sentence, in which the author, Josh Gelernter, says that “this week, the 127-year-old American Dialect Society voted the plural pronoun ‘they,’ used as a singular pronoun, their Word of the Year.” It isn’t from last week; this is a piece of old news that recently went viral again. The American Dialect Society announced its word of the year, as it typically does, at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, this is a good indication of the quality of the author’s research throughout the rest of the article.

After calling those who use singular they stupid and criticizing the ADS for failing to correct them (which is a fairly serious misunderstanding of the purpose of the ADS and the entire field of linguistics in general), Gelernter says that we already have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, and it’s he. He cites “the dictionary of record”, Webster’s Second International, for support. His choice of dictionary is telling. For those not familiar with it, Webster’s Second, or W2, was published in 1934 and has been out of print for decades.

The only reason someone would choose it over Webster’s Third, published in 1961, is as a reaction to the perception that W3 was overly permissive. When it was first published, it was widely criticized for its more descriptive stance, which did away with some of the more judgemental usage labels. Even W3 is out of date and has been replaced with the new online Unabridged; W2 is only the dictionary of record of someone who refuses to accept any of the linguistic change or social progress of the last century.

Gelernter notes that W2’s first definition for man is “a member of the human race”, while the “male human being” sense “is the second-given, secondary definition.” Here it would have helped Gelernter to read the front matter of his dictionary. Unlike some other dictionaries, Merriam-Webster arranges entries not in order of primary or central meanings to more peripheral meanings but in order of historical attestation. Man was most likely originally gender-neutral, while the original word for a male human being was wer (which survives only in the word werewolf). Over time, though, wer fell out of use, and man began pulling double duty. 1The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that a similar thing happened with the Latin vir (cognate with wer) and homo. Vir fell out of use as homo took over the sense of “male human”.

So just because an entry is listed first in a Merriam-Webster dictionary does not mean it’s the primary definition, and just because a word originally meant one thing (and still does mean that thing to some extent) does not mean we must continue to use it that way.

Interestingly, Gelernter admits that the language lost some precision when the plural you pushed out the singular thou as a second-person pronoun, though, bizarrely, he says that it was for good reason, because you had caught on as a more polite form of address. The use of you as a singular pronoun started as a way to be polite and evolved into an obsession with social status, in which thou was eventually relegated to inferiors before finally dropping out of use.

The resurgence of singular they in the twentieth century was driven by a different sort of social force: an acknowledgement that the so-called gender-neutral he is not really gender-neutral. Research has shown that gender-neutral uses of he and man cause readers to think primarily of males, even when context makes it clear that the person could be of either gender. (Here’s just one example.) They send the message that men are the default and women are other. Embracing gender-neutral language, whether it’s he or she or they or some other solution, is about correcting that imbalance by acknowledging that women are people too.

And in case you still think that singular they is just some sort of newfangled politically correct usage, you should know that it has been in use since the 1300s and has been used by literary greats from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Orwell.2I once wrote that Orwell didn’t actually use singular they; it turns out that the quote attributed to him in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was wrong, but he really did use it. For centuries, nobody batted an eye at singular they, until grammarians started to proscribe it in favor of generic he in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Embracing singular they doesn’t break English grammar; it merely embraces something that’s been part of English grammar for seven centuries.

At the end, we get to the real heart of Gelernter’s article: ranting about new gender-neutral job titles in the armed forces. Gelernter seems to think that changing to gender-neutral titles will somehow make the members of our armed forces suddenly forget how to do their jobs. This isn’t really about grammar; it’s about imagining that it’s a burden to think about the ways in which language affects people, that it’s a burden to treat women with the same respect as men.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Josh Gelernter thinks about singular they or about gender-neutral language in general. Society will continue to march on, just as language has continued to march on in the eight decades since his beloved Webster’s Second was published. But remember that we have a choice in deciding how language will march on. We can use our language to reflect outdated and harmful stereotypes, or we can use it to treat others with the respect they deserve. I know which one I choose.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that a similar thing happened with the Latin vir (cognate with wer) and homo. Vir fell out of use as homo took over the sense of “male human”.
2. I once wrote that Orwell didn’t actually use singular they; it turns out that the quote attributed to him in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage was wrong, but he really did use it.

19 Responses to Stupidity on Singular They

  1. Terrified I Made a Mistake says:

    Goodness, linguistic take downs are brutal.

  2. AJD says:

    “Just because a word originally meant one thing… does not mean we must continue to use it that way.” Indeed—otherwise, we would be unable to refer to the author of the National Review article as “Gelernter”.

  3. esavoa says:

    “And in case you still think that singular they is just some sort of newfangled politically correct usage, you should know that it has been in use since the 1300s and has been used by literary greats from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Orwell.2 For centuries, nobody batted an eye at singular they, until grammarians started to proscribe it in favor of generic he in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Embracing singular they doesn’t break English grammar; it merely embraces something that’s been part of English grammar for seven centuries.”

    But as you’ve said ad infinitum, language evolves. What was used seven hundred years ago, singular they, has evolved to the exclusively plural usage. The resurgence of the singular “they” is a gender-neutral issue, but not a grammatical one. Therefore, your argument is supported by politics rather than grammar.

    Again, this constant reference to Chaucer and Shakespeare, as if they were impervious to making mistakes. The process of English codification started slowly in the late 16th century and was magnified during the 18th century, well after Chaucer and Shakespeare.

    After all, today it’s not acceptable for people to wipe their mouths on the table cloth while dining, but no one argues that it’s not bad manners because Henry V11 did it. It was acceptable during the Tudor period, but today it’s bad manners.

  4. JJM says:

    Gelernter’s article was a peevish rant.
    However, although the widespread use of “singular they” is entirely idiomatic and unremarkable, it would be well to remember that it has always been used not to be “gender-neutral” but rather where the issue of sex was irrelevant. So singular they has limits. Take this sentence:
    “Any doctor is always prepared to offer their advice on this medical condition.”
    Sounds fine, right? Now change “any” to “my”:
    “My doctor is always prepared to offer their advice on this medical condition.”
    Doesn’t sound right now, does it? Why? Because I’ve now identified a very specific “doctor” and so to work idiomatically, it has to be either “his advice” or “her advice”:
    “My doctor is always prepared to offer her advice on this medical condition.”
    To make singular they “gender-neutral” in the sense implied by that wholly political term would mean wilfully and consciously attempting to further extend its usage.
    There’s simply no guarantee that might succeed, i.e., catch on in popular language.

    • garic says:

      “My doctor is always prepared to offer their advice on this medical condition.”
      Doesn’t sound right now, does it?

      Actually, for what it’s worth, it sounds fine to me. The point (of course) is that there’s variation here. In some dialects this has caught on very widely; in other dialects less so. You’re right that we have no guarantee that it will spread further, but hopefully we can agree that it would be nice if it did.

    • “My doctor is always prepared to offer their advice on this medical condition.”
      Doesn’t sound right now, does it? Why? Because I’ve now identified a very specific “doctor” and so to work idiomatically, it has to be either “his advice” or “her advice”:
      “My doctor is always prepared to offer her advice on this medical condition.”

      It sounds okay to me too. You know what gender your doctor is, but I don’t. And since I don’t know, singular they works just fine. Of course, you could opt for “his” or “her” and thus tell me what your doctor’s gender is, but that’s not necessary, especially if their gender is not salient.

  5. Mike Aubrey says:

    But as you’ve said ad infinitum, language evolves. What was used seven hundred years ago, singular they, has evolved to the exclusively plural usage. The resurgence of the singular “they” is a gender-neutral issue, but not a grammatical one. Therefore, your argument is supported by politics rather than grammar.
    Except singular ‘they’ is only having a resurgence in it’s acceptability not in usage or pervasiveness. It never left the language. It’s been with us the whole time. That was the whole point of the phrase “Chaucer to Shakespeare to Orwell.” The point isn’t that it went away and now it’s coming back. The point is that it has been a stable piece of the language for hundreds of years despite language evolution.

  6. Julia Traver says:

    I do not believe that I have heard it used in the nominative case. If someone can provide a sample of this usage I would be grateful.

    • There are a lot of examples of different constructions on this Wikipedia page. Here are a few:

      “If anyone tells you that America’s best days are behind her, then they’re looking the wrong way.”
      “No one felt they had been misled.”
      “Who thinks they can solve the problem?”

  7. esavoa says:

    “Except singular ‘they’ is only having a resurgence in it’s[sic] acceptability not in usage or pervasiveness. It never left the language.”

    Yes, that’s true, but the fact that it has not left the language is irrelevant, because solecisms usually never leave the language.

    • What was used seven hundred years ago, singular they, has evolved to the exclusively plural usage.

      That’s pretty clearly not true. As Mike Aubrey said, the point is that it’s been in use the whole time. It was strongly discouraged in writing for a while, but it was never eliminated.

      Again, this constant reference to Chaucer and Shakespeare, as if they were impervious to making mistakes.

      Yes, that’s true, but the fact that it has not left the language is irrelevant, because solecisms usually never leave the language.

      First, I highly doubt the second part is entirely true. Second, the real question is, how do you know it’s a solecism? You keep referring to the process of standardization or codification, but you seem to think that the experts all got together and set down the rules for time and all eternity. Why do you believe that every rule put forth by someone a couple of centuries ago is still valid? Why do you believe that those rules aren’t subject to being reevaluated or even overturned today?

      And more importantly, I blocked you from commenting here several months ago for trolling. How are you going to demonstrate that you’re here to argue in good faith?

  8. esavoa says:

    “And more importantly, I blocked you from commenting here several months ago for trolling. How are you going to demonstrate that you’re here to argue in good faith?”

    You’re accusing me of something of which I’m not guilty. I always argue in good faith and in what I believe. I might be a little too emotional with my arguments, but they’re meant in good faith. If you object to a counter position then you might as well block the few people who disagree.

    What was used seven hundred years ago, singular they, has evolved to the exclusively plural usage.

    “That’s pretty clearly not true. As Mike Aubrey said, the point is that it’s been in use the whole time. It was strongly discouraged in writing for a while, but it was never eliminated.”

    Yes, I was too impetuous with my declaration, because it never evolved to an [exclusive] plural usage. What I meant to say was that it evolved to a standard usage, whereas the singular usage was discouraged.

    Yes, that’s true, but the fact that it has not left the language is irrelevant, because solecisms usually never leave the language.

    “First, I highly doubt the second part is entirely true.”

    For this reason I wrote. “…’usually’ never leave the language. “

    “Second, the real question is, how do you know it’s a solecism? You keep referring to the process of standardization or codification, but you seem to think that the experts all got together and set down the rules for time and all eternity. Why do you believe that every rule put forth by someone a couple of centuries ago is still valid? Why do you believe that those rules aren’t subject to being reevaluated or even overturned today?”

    I don’t like the process of simplification and that seems to be what we’re doing with language. I believe that we should try to adhere to a standard as much as possible. Many of these rules are debunked or ignored because people are too lazy to learn them. I’m curious, how many of these rules are you opposed to?
    By the way, I’m not entirely opposed to the singular ‘they’ usage.

  9. Why am I not surprised that someone writing for the National Review would believe “he” was generic? Sigh . . . My mentor when I started editing in the late 1970s revered Web 2. Her copy was in the office where we worked. She was old school in many ways, most of them good, and I learned so much from her. Now I rail against U.S. copyeditors who treat the descriptivist MW Collegiate as an iron-clad rulebook. I think I have turned into a curmudgeon.

  10. David Morris says:

    He/him/his is gender-neutral????

    “Think about the first person you kissed. Can you remember the colour of his eyes?”

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