Skip to main content

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)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.


Popular posts from this blog

AYFKMWTS?! FBI Creates 88 Page Twitter Slang Guide


Did you get that? It's an acronym. Web slang. It's how all the teens and young people are texting with their tweeters and Facer-books on their cellular doodads.

It stands for "The FBI has created an eighty-eight page Twitter slang dictionary."

See, you would have known that if you had the FBI's 88 page Twitter slang dictionary.

Eighty-eight pages! Of slang! AYFKMWTS?! (Are you f***ing kidding me with this s***?! That's actually how they spell it in the guide, asterisks and everything. You know, in case the gun-toting agents who catch mobsters and international terrorists get offended by salty language.)

I didn't even know there were 88 Twitter acronyms, let alone enough acronyms to fill 88 pieces of paper.

The FBI needs to be good at Twitter because they're reading everyone's tweets to see if anyone is planning any illegal activities. Because that's what terrorists do — plan their terroristic activities publicly, as if they were…

Understanding 7 Different Types of Humor

One of my pet peeves is when people say they have a "dry" sense of humor, without actually understanding what it actually means.

"Dry" humor is not just any old type of humor. It's not violent, not off-color, not macabre or dark.

Basically, dry humor is that deadpan style of humor. It's the not-very-funny joke your uncle the cost analysis accountant tells. It's Bob Newhart, Steven Wright, or Jason Bateman in Arrested Development.

It is not, for the love of GOD, people, the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I swear, if anyone says Monty Python is "dry humor" is going to get a smack.

Here are some other types of comedy you may have heard and are just tossing around, willy-nilly.

Farce: Exaggerated comedy. Characters in a farce get themselves in an unlikely or improbable situation that takes a lot of footwork and fast talking to get out of. The play "The Foreigner" is an example of a farce, as are many of the Jeeves &…

What Are They Thinking? The Beloit College Mindset List

Every year at this time, the staff at Beloit College send out their new student Mindset List as a way to make everyone clutch their chest and feel the cold hand of death.

This list was originally created and shared with their faculty each year, so the faculty would understand what some of their own cultural touchstones might mean, or not mean, to the incoming freshmen. They also wanted the freshmen to know it was not cool to refer to '80s music as "Oldies."

This year's incoming Beloit freshmen are typically 18 years old, born in 1999. John F. Kennedy Jr. died that year, as did Stanley Kubrick and Gene Siskel. And so did my hope for a society that sought artistic and intellectual pursuits for the betterment of all humanity. Although it may have actually died when I heard about this year's Emoji Movie.

Before I throw my hands up in despair, here are a few items from the Mindset list for the class of 2021.

They're the last class to be born in the 1900s, and are t…