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 Even W3 is out of date and has been replaced with the new online Unabridged; W2 is only the dictionary of record of someone who refuses to accept any of the linguistic change or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.

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They and the Gender-Neutral Pronoun Dilemma

A few weeks ago, as a submission for my topic contest, Bob Scopatz suggested I tackle the issue of gender-neutral pronouns in English. In his comment he said, “I dislike alternating between ‘he’ and ‘she’. I despise all variants of ‘he/she’, ‘s/he’, etc. I know that I should not use ‘they’, but it feels closest to what I really want. Could you maybe give us the latest on this topic and tell me if there is any hope for a consensus usage in my lifetime?” It must be a timely topic, because I’ve read three different articles and watched a video on it in the past week.

The first was Allan Metcalf’s article at Lingua Franca on failed attempts to fill gaps in the language. He says that the need for a gender-neutral pronoun is a gap that has existed for centuries, defying attempts to fill it with neologisms. He notes almost in passing that they is another option but that “filling a singular gap with a plural doesn’t satisfy” every one.

The next was June Casagrande’s article in the Burbank Leader. She gives the subject a little more attention, discussing the awkwardness of using “he or she” or “him or her” every time and the rising acceptance of the so-called singular they. But then, in similar fashion to the it’s-not-wrong-but-you-still-shouldn’t-do-it approach, she says that she won’t judge others who use singular they, but she’s going to hold off on it herself (presumably because she doesn’t want to be judged negatively for it). She also overlooks some historical facts, namely that they has been used this way since Chaucer’s day and that it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century that it was declared ungrammatical by Lindley Murray.

That leads to the next article, an interview with Professor Anne Curzan at Visual Thesaurus. She discusses the “almost hypocritical position” of having to grade students’ papers for grammar and usage issues that she doesn’t believe in, like singular they. She tackles the allegation that it’s incorrect because they is plural, saying that in a sentence like “I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie”, “they is clearly singular, because it’s referring to a friend.” This probably won’t carry much weight with some people who believe that it’s innately plural and that you can’t just declare it to be singular when it suits you. Ah, but here’s the rub: English speakers did the same thing with plural you in centuries past.

Originally, English had two second-person pronouns, singular thou and plural you. But speakers began to use you as a formal singular pronoun (think French vous, Spanish usted, or German Sie). Then it began to be used in more and more situations, until thou was only used when talking down to someone and then disappeared from the language altogether. Now we have a pronoun that agrees with verbs like a plural but clearly refers to singular entities all the time. If you can do it, why can’t they?

Further, Steven Pinker argues that “everyone and they are not an ‘antecedent’ and a ‘pronoun’ referring to the same person”, but rather that “they are a ‘quantifier’ and a ‘bound variable,’ a different logical relationship.” He says that “Everyone returned to their seats means “For all X, X returned to X’s seat.” In other words, there are logical objections to the logical objections to singular they.

Then there came Emily Brewster’s Ask the Editor video at Merriam-Webster Online. She notes that for the eighteenth-century grammarians who proscribed singular they and prescribed generic he, “inaccuracy of gender was less troublesome than inaccuracy of number.” She then concludes that “all this effort to avoid a usage that’s centuries old strikes some of us as strange” and makes the recommendation, “Perhaps everyone should just do their best in the situations they find themselves in, even if their best involves they as a singular pronoun.”

Rather than join the ranks of grammarians who walk through all the arguments in favor of singular they but then throw their hands up in defeat and tell you to avoid it because it’s not accepted yet, I’m taking a different track and recommending its use. The problem with not using it until it becomes accepted is that it won’t become accepted until enough people—especially people with some authority in the field of usage—use it and say it’s okay to use it. If we sit around waiting for the day when it’s declared to be acceptable, we’ll be waiting a long time. But while there are still people who will decry it as an error, as I’ve said before, you can’t please everyone. And as Bob said in his original comment, they is what many people already use or want to use. I think it’s the best solution for a common problem, and it’s time to stop wringing our hands over it and embrace it.

So, to answer Bob’s question if there will ever be consensus on the issue in our lifetime, I’d say that while there might not be consensus at the moment, I’m hopeful that it will come. I think the tide has already begun to turn as more and more linguists, lexicographers, editors, and writers recommend it as the best solution to a common problem.

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