It used to be so simple. “He,” “she,” and “it” were singular pronouns, and “we,” and “they” were plural pronouns. Then, last year, The Washington Post incorporated a gender-neutral, singular “they” into its (or should I say “their”) style guide and, more recently, the American Dialect Society selected the singular “they” as its (their?) word of the year. (I should point out that the ridiculous two-word expression, “on fleek” was also a contender, so apparently this entire sentence could be up for consideration next year. Here’s hoping.)
I’ve had a number of conversations about this in recent weeks, and reactions have been mixed. Some people were dismayed by the announcement. Others were thrilled. (One woman in particular proclaimed, “You just made my day! If I had a happy jar, I’d deposit that into it.”)
I get it. It’s an awkward issue, to be sure. You end up with sentences like, “Each partner must then determine any additional tax that he or she would have owed.” It would be much easier to replace “he or she” with “they.” But just because something’s easier doesn’t necessarily mean we should change a rule that’s been around for centuries.
Except people have been ignoring it for centuries, too. The singular “they” has deep historical roots, from Shakespeare to Chaucer to Jane Austen. Someone at Pemberley.com even went so far as to tally up the instances of the singular “they/their/them” in Austen’s six novels—75, in case you’re curious—as part of a web page titled, “Jane Austen and Other Famous Authors Violate What Everyone Learned in Their English Class.” As someone who often takes a contrarian viewpoint when it comes to conventional wisdom and grammar, you’d think that would’ve been enough to sway me. But it wasn’t.
So what’s making me rethink my stance? Articles like this one from the Poynter Institute. “More recently, singular ‘they’ is being considered as an alternative to ‘he’ and ‘she’ for people who don’t identify as male or female or who don’t identify with any gender all,” it reads. “The Associated Press already recommends identifying someone by the pronoun that person prefers, but what if someone doesn’t prefer either?” The singular “they” has become the preferred go-to pronoun for this segment of the population, and failure to adopt it results in pronoun avoidance which only unnecessarily complicates things. That’s different than laziness; that’s cultural shift.
So when I came upon the sentence, “When someone steals your identity, they have the opportunity to file a fraudulent tax return,” earlier this week, I left it alone. And when we were describing the target persona for our new, executive-level video series yesterday afternoon and a colleague pointed out, “We keep saying ‘him’ instead of ‘him or her,’” I thought, “The all-inclusive, newly singular ‘they’ would come in pretty handy right about now.”
And if that allows others to put deposits into their happy jars while we’re at it, so be it.
What do you think? Can you embrace a singular “they”? And do you have a least favorite word? Last week’s blog was all about great underused words; now I’d like to explore annoying, overused ones. See you in two weeks.
Word of the Week: Eviscerate, because—believe it or not—3 separate people noted that it should have been included in last week’s blog.
Song of the Week: “Fifteen,” by Taylor Swift, because it was attacked by the Princeton Review for its use of a singular “they.”