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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Singular "They" by KM Rockwood

Twice today I encountered an example of a singular “they.” I have to admit it grated on my ear.
One was a parent referring to a child, who was dressed in a pair of denim overalls, a green shirt and a plain pair of boots. When asked why the child was being permitted to block the aisles of a crowded grocery store by meandering back and forth from one side to the other and grabbing random items which were then abandoned on the floor, the parent explained that “They don’t like to sit in the cart.”
The other was in a letter to an advice columnist.[1] Both the person asking for advice and the columnist refer to a spouse as “they.” The question, and the answer, seemed to indicate that we are dealing with a monogamous situation, not polyandry or polygyny.
The use of the singular “they” seems to be either an attempt to disguise the gender (use of that word in this context is a whole separate issue) of the parties involved, or a matter of respecting the spouse’s preference.
English does have a perfectly good neutral singular pronoun. “It.” I’m not sure why that is considered insulting when applied to a person, but it is.  When I taught at an inner-city public school, a student trying to infuriate an adult would address that person as “Mrs. It,” “Officer It,” etc. Interestingly, that worked pretty well.
When I think about it, I realize that the use of the singular “they” is not new at all. I can recall numerous times when I’ve heard it when it didn’t grate on my ear. “Will whoever spilled coffee in the lounge please clean up their mess.” It tends to be used in an informal context.
We also have the awkward but clear “he/she” (or, as I’ve seen it a couple of times, “she/he” or "s/he.")
A little searching shows that this has been an issue with the English language for centuries. In 1789, Williams H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular ou. He trances this to the Middle English epicene a, used by fourteenth-century English writer John of Trevisa.
He goes on to describe how relics of these sex-neutral terms survive in some British dialects of Modern English, and sometimes a pronoun of one gender might be applied to a person or animal of the opposite gender. In 1770, Robert Baker suggested use of “one, ones.” [2] Today, one is used as an indeterminate pronoun, especially in more formal writing.
English is a vibrant, living language. We’re all aware that, in the not-too-distant past, we had separate words for second person pronouns. “Thee” survives, especially in religious contexts, but we comfortably use “you” as both singular and plural. Other forms do exist—my Philadelphia-born and raised husband habitually employs “youse” in conversation as the plural form of second person.
I don’t anticipate ever using with using a singular “they” in my writing, but who knows? Right now, if it does pop up while I am writing, in the “clean up their mess” context, I go back and reword the phrase, since I am not comfortable with it.
I will, however, make every effort to address people, and refer to them, by their preferred pronoun if they make it known to me. I can remember the uproar among some people when the title “Ms.” came into common use in place of “Miss” and/or “Mrs.”
"Mrs." and "Miss," both derived from the then formal Mistress, like Mister did not originally indicate marital status. Ms. was another acceptable abbreviation for Mistress, in England, in the 17th and 18th centuries. During the 19th century, however, Mrs. and Miss came to be associated almost exclusively with marital status. Ms. was popularized as an alternative in the 20th century.[3]
Whether the singular “they” becomes common, or another pronoun takes its place, we will adjust. The language will adjust. In the not-too-distant future, I anticipate most people will wonder what the fuss was about, if they consider it at all.

More on the subject from the Washington Post:

[1] Hax, Carolyn, “How to keep a roller coaster on its rails.” Washington Post, 10 Jan. 2020, pg. C4.
[2] LGBTQ+ Resource Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2020.
[3] Wikipedia. Ms., 2020


Kait said...

I too remember the Ms. Miss. Mrs. brouhaha. Frankly, I'm fine with all three, but the use of the plural to indicate gender neutrality does grate on my ears, too. Most likely because the usage wasn't correct in the days when grammar was being drilled into my head. Mentally, I apply a red pencil to it.

Your blog brings up another question. How are gender rendering languages coping? I remember a French teacher in high school telling a room of giggling girls, "Le sexe est masculin." A sexist statement even in the 1960s, but grammatically correct.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Kait asks a valid question about gender rendering languages, one I haven't seen addressed in the press or social media.

I was fine with "Ms." and I'm fine with gender neutrality, too.

judyalter said...

We have a non-binary person in our family (doesn't identify with either gender) who prefers to be called they. As I write this hardly keep from saying "she" and "her" but out of affection and respect, I try hard. The singular "they" doesn't trip off my tongue easily, so I usually try to avoid pronouns. I don't think I'd be comfortable with singular "they' in my writing.

Shari Randall said...

I also grew up under the Grammar Hammer, and admit that the plural can trip me up, but I always try to use a person's preferred pronoun.
I remember hearing awhile back that "zee" was being suggested as a nonbinary pronoun, but haven't heard anything about this lately.

KM Rockwood said...

Interesting question about gender-rendering languages.

If a person expresses a preference, I think it's respectful to try to honor that.

English, and us, will adjust to some form of this. Perhaps in a way we can't anticipate now. The language has been moving away from gender specificity. When was the last time you heard of a woman being referred to as a "cookette?" Many terms have migrated to non-specific: mail carrier, firefighter and such. Some still seem to retain the gender bias in form, but not in practice. "She's my foreman."