Who are “they” to tell us what to say?

unnamedMy fellow Pitchstone author Greta Christina recently wrote the article Trans People and Basic Human Respect for The Humanist. The following paragraph sparked a debate about the use of singular they.

“Trans people often change their names, and some do it more than once. Some identify as male or female; others identify with blended gender identities, or with entirely different gender identities other than male or female. Others don’t identify with any gender, or reject the idea of a gender binary. Some choose to be identified with the gendered pronouns “he” or “she,” while others prefer new gender-neutral pronouns like “zie” or “hir” or use “they” as a singular pronoun.”

What is singular they? This is the use of the plural pronoun they and its related forms (them, their, etc.) to refer to a single person. Here’s a nice example of this usage from UK Olympic diver Tom Daley who recently came out as bisexual:

“In spring this year my life changed massively when I met someone, and they make me feel so happy, so safe and everything just feels great,” Daley said. “That someone is a guy.”

In response to Christina’s article, Tom Flynn wrote a post critical of this usage: Of Gender, Language, and Clarity.  Flynn argues that the use of singular they, “unnecessarily degrades the clarity of our language in regards to number.” I’ve been asked to weigh in about the singular they argument, but this is a very complicated topic, so here are just a few thoughts…

To fill this grammatical gap, some people are in favor of creating a new non-gender specific pronoun, such as zie or hir. Over the decades there have been dozens of suggestions, including thon, li, and ep, although none have been successful at being adopted. Others argue that we already have a gender neutral pronoun: it. However, it is used for objectsanimals, and as a dummy subject (It’s raining). In most contexts, it’s extremely dehumanizing to use it in reference to people.

A major stumbling block to creating a non-gender specific pronoun is the behavior of pronouns. Nouns and verbs are content words, that is, words that convey “lexical” or semantic information. These words are considered to be open class, meaning that we add new examples all the time, such as the neologisms selfie, bromance, and frenemy. (Even though my spell-checker begs to disagree.) However, pronouns are function words, that is, words that convey grammatical info. They belong to the closed class which includes conjunctions (and, but), adpositions (from, to), and determiners (these, those). Closed class categories are mostly fixed and we rarely add new words to them.

This means that we probably won’t take too kindly to the addition of a newly proposed pronoun, such as zie or hir, although it’s more likely that an existing pronoun will be adapted for this new purpose. Using this kind of repurposing, plural you became modified into youse or y’all, while plural they broadened to singular they. Pronouns are resistant to new constructions, but they aren’t resistant to change.

Historically, lots of funky shit has happened to pronouns. Old English included a complex inventory of pronouns marked for person, number, case, and gender. The pronoun system included words for singular, plural, but also dual number (signifying two people). A few languages still have dual pronouns, such as Tongan, some have trial number, referring to only three, while others have paucal number, meaning a few, three or four or so, or a small group. What a crazy world we live in! (Oops, I ended a sentence with a preposition…)

In Modern English, all of these complicated Old English forms have collapsed into just a handful of pronouns. Interestingly, third person singular feminine she is the newest addition to the pronoun family, dating back to Middle English, although there are many theories as to where it came from and its etymology remains a linguistic mystery.

Lots of interesting shifts have occurred to gendered terms too. During the Middle Ages, girl (“gyrle”) once meant child of either sex, but over time it narrowed to refer specifically to a female child.

4fd6e32bff3779894b807f830d02b85764d3c4670343bb8af1fa6b58998c026bPerhaps we don’t need to go looking for another term because singular they has already been used for centuries. To justify its usage, some point out that it has an impressive pedigree in that William Shakespeare and Jane Austin used singular they. This is true, but it’s the way they is used today that matters because usage dictates meaning. Christina observes that various style guides accept this usage, and this is a very important point. In contrast to Flynn’s complaint that the usage “degrades” clarity, singular they is completely meaningful and understood by speakers and listeners in everyday language. We know what you mean when you say it…

There is a (pompous) prohibition on its use in formal language but singular they is a perfectly acceptable form in informal English. The more we use it, the more acceptable it becomes.

Linguists describe language, they don’t prescribe language (except in cases of language policy and planning). That is, we observe how people talk and write, but we don’t tell them how to do it. That’s not good science.

For hundreds of year, prescriptivists have made lists of ‘dos’ and ‘dont’s’. They have judged certain constructions as “wrong” or “bad” in arguments that were as outraged and passionate as they are today. In the seventeenth century, John Wallis whined about the use of chicken as a singular noun. In the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson penned the first English dictionary to rid language of “colloquial barbarisms” and “licentious idioms”. He was pissed off about the use of words such as novel to replace new, and capture in place of take. Jonathan Swift and his contemporaries railed against using mob as a shortened version of mobile vulgus. These new usages were blamed on the “loose morals” of the day. The social significance of these complaints are lost on us today, and these objections seem strange and trivial.

We all know the saying, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” To dictate that they should only be plural, which flies in the face of usage, seems to be a case of, “I don’t know much about linguistics, but I know what I like.” This comes down to a matter of personal preference (or prejudice).

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

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