Friday, January 22, 2016

In Praise of the Singular They

You know that wonderful feeling you get, when you learn something you've been told was "wrong, was later determined to be right after all?

Like learning "don't end your sentences with a preposition" was a nonsensical, unnecessary rule created by a Latin scholar in 1762 because he wanted English to be like Latin.

Like reading on Web MD that nothing will actually freeze your face that way.

Like finally being old enough to win an argument with your parents.

That's how I felt this past week, when I learned that top language experts support the "singular they."

"What kind of language experts?"

Top. Language Experts.

Singular "they" is the word you'd use if you don't know the sex of a person in a hypothetical situation.

"I don't know who keeps stealing my cupcakes, but they better hope I don't find them."

Singular they is a great replacement for "he or she" and "his or her," which are a linguistic nightmare for anyone who likes brevity.

Because nothing is as gross and disgusting as having to write sentences like, "If anyone wants his or her parking pass, he or she needs to come to the HR office, so he or she can register his or her car."

I've had to contend with this whole "he or she" nonsense since grad school in the early 90s, and I was always looking for a way around it. I'm not saying we should go back to the days of the generic "he," which was sexist and exclusionary. I just think we need something that's not as awkwardly formal as my junior prom.

"S/he" is even worse. That one was devised by a demon-possessed robot. Whoever came up with "s/he" needs to hang his or her head in shame — it's the participation trophy of the English language. I'm proud to say I've never, ever written "s/he" except to make fun of it and the people who use it.

Even in the early 90s, I was lobbying for singular they, but to a language tone-deaf crowd who saw nothing wrong with an overwritten, clunky "he or she." Of course, these were all academics, so overwritten and clunky was their stock in trade.

These were people who thought that if 10 words was good, 30 words was better. If one syllable was acceptable, four syllables were better. These people could turn a stop sign into a 30 word declaration, after spending six weeks writing a mission statement about a two week project.

Needless to say — but I'm a former academic, which means I'm going to say it anyway — my professors preferred "he or she," and were annoyed when I refused to use it. When I made a strong case for singular they, I was told it was grammatically incorrect because it referred to more than one person, while "he or she" was singular.

They got more annoyed when I pointed out how they used it in normal conversation.

So you can imagine my joy this past December, when the Washington Post admitted the singular they into their style guide when referring to transgender people, and to avoid awkward sentences, like "If anyone wants to register his or her disappointment with the Post's decision, he or she can write a strongly worded letter, if it will make him or her feel good about himself or herself."

It got even better a few weeks ago, when hundreds of linguists gathered at the American Dialect Society annual meeting, and voted to make singular they the 2015 Word Of The Year.

It may not be the Académie française, the French academy that determines the official French language, but the American Dialect Society is made up of professionals and academics who study the English language, and how it's changing and developing. And they don't give a rip about what Mrs. Fischgesicht told you in the seventh grade.

It sounds like the singular they is here to stay. Sure, there will be much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, especially by those holdouts whose blood boiled earlier when I said the "no prepositions" rule was wrong.

So if anyone has a problem with this change, he or she should log on to his or her Facebook page and express his or her opinion, as loudly as he or she can, to his or her friends. Then he or she can engage in a vigorous debate and explain his or her reasons for why he or she continues to hold on to his or her beliefs.

Trust me, they'll feel a lot better.


Hat tip to Grammar Girl for the podcast episode that alerted me to the Washington Post and American Dialect Society's decisions, and inspired this column!


Photo credit: A 10" x 14" engraving from the original painting by L.E. Pine in possession of Rev. Robert Lowth, M.A. dated 1809 as published in a special edition of "Dr. Johnson: His Friends and His Critics" by George Birkbeck Hill Wikipedia (Public Domain, PD-US)


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