Magazine February 10, 2020, Issue

On the New Uses of ‘They’

(Wikimedia Commons)
Sex and the singular pronoun

The folks at Merriam-Webster dictionaries named they as their 2019 word of the year, citing a dramatic increase in online lookups during the year. In some ways it was a strange choice. The word-of-the-year awards, given mostly by dictionary publishers and linguistic associations, usually go to recent neologisms that have become voguish. They is in a different category: It dates from Early Middle English in the 13th century, borrowed from Old Norse. Most of the uses that spurred its newfound notoriety date from the 1300s.

The “new” sense of they is as a singular pronoun. By a confluence of natural linguistic evolution and a couple of social-engineering campaigns, the word has been thrust into prominence in the last few years.

The evolutionary part has to do with the lack in English of a common-gender third-person singular pronoun. The problem often arises with indefinite pronouns: Everyone can think for himself. Herself? Themselves? Themself? If we stipulate, as 18th-century grammarians did, that the indefinite pronoun everyone is singular, what reflexive complement are we to use? In 1745, an English grammarian named Anne Fisher posited that the masculine singular pronoun includes the feminine. So for more than 250 years, speakers of Standard English satisfied themselves with Everyone can think for himself. Grammarians became resolute on the point.

But this solution never really sat well, especially toward the end of the 20th century. Feminists argued (rightly, I think) that the generic masculine pronoun was sexist. Hence “enlightened” speakers would utter, ploddingly, Everyone can think for himself or herself. 

Stylists bristled at this clumsy addition of three syllables. Traditionalists would stick to himself; linguistic progressives stayed with himself or herself. But then the progressives took things one step further: By the early 1980s, it had become common for them to say or write Everyone can think for herself. If the generic masculine is acceptable, so should be the generic feminine. Let men adjust to being the unstated members of a feminine category, the thinking went.

Still others preferred to alternate masculine and feminine pronouns willy-nilly. But this proved no less distracting.

Soon, though, some feminists came to dislike the generic feminine. If a generic she or her was acceptable, then so (by parity of reasoning) would be the generic he and him. But in print sources, the generic masculine continued to outnumber the generic feminine by overwhelming ratios — perhaps 1,000 to 1. So no real progress was apparent.

Meanwhile, nonstandard speakers blithely said and wrote Everyone can think for themselves, unaware or uncaring that everyone was supposed to serve as a singular antecedent.

About this same time, gender politics came into play. As women became an ever-larger segment of the workforce, there were (for example) policy manuals whose provisions felt awkward: An employee may file an EEOC claim if he believes that he has been discriminated against. Regardless of what Anne Fisher wrote in 1745, many women didn’t consider themselves included in such statements. And people didn’t really want to write An employee may file an EEOC claim if he or she believes that he or she has been discriminated against. Some progressives opted for he/she and even s/he — or, believe it or not, on occasion, s/he/it.

All the while, grammatical traditionalists insisted that the masculine includes the feminine.

But then another aspect of gender politics came into play. Some progressives argued that just as we shouldn’t care whether a woman was married or single (the Miss vs. Mrs. vs. Ms. debate of the 1970s), why should we care whether a person is male or female if it’s irrelevant to an account? A student came to see me the other day. They told me that . . . Must we identify the student as a he or a she? Note that it’s not the same instance as an indefinite pronoun. Here we’re talking about a particular student. Even in the 1980s, progressives would argue that the androgynous nature of modern people necessitated relegating sex-specific references to the dustbin of history.

After the Supreme Court declared in Obergefell v. Hodges that people have a constitutional right to same-sex marriage — and that legal point was firmly settled — a new progressive issue came to the fore: transgender rights. Lots of people now objected even to references to he or she on grounds that these references excluded people who saw themselves as neither a he nor a she. The binary nature of language is itself discriminatory, the argument ran (and still runs).

The argument had arisen before Obergefell was decided in 2015, but it came into public consciousness only afterward. By 2017, it had become de rigueur to name one’s preferred pronouns. In New York City, it was common in certain circles to append these to your name in oral introductions: “Hi, I’m Mariellen: she/her.” Or “Hi, I’m Michael: they/them.” In academic circles — or politically correct circles, some would say — the prevailing custom became to put your preferred pronouns in the signature block of all emails.

In 2017, I had a conversation with two young New Yorkers who insisted that everyone could have personalized pronouns: xe/xem/xyr/xyrs/xemself, for example, or whatever else the person might choose. (According to a guide issued by the University of Wisconsin, the available third-person singular nominative pronouns are ae, ay, e, fae, he, per, she, they, ve, xe, ze, and zie. All hail diversity!) When I opined that it would be interesting to watch how the language worked out the problem, and that they/their would probably become universally regarded as acceptable singulars, my suggestion was taken to be highly inflammatory. “This is not for the language to work out,” I was told. “We’re talking about people, and they should get to choose.”

“But language doesn’t work that way,” I said. “Efficient solutions get worked out naturally. If there are many or even dozens of possible pronouns, people can’t possibly remember.”

“They’re just going to have to. We’re talking about people.”

“Sometimes,” I replied, “I meet hundreds of people in a day. Individualized pronouns would be unworkable.”

“Most people aren’t like you,” I was told by one of my twentysomething interlocutors. Having reached an impasse, we changed the subject.

So, you see, some progressives are already pushing way past they and their as singulars.

But in everyday life, they and their are going the way of you in the 18th century. You was once regarded as a plural only, the singular forms being thou (nominative) and thee (objective). Gradually, beginning in the 14th century, you came to be regarded as alternatively singular or plural. Ever since, people have wanted an unambiguous plural reference for the second person — hence you all or y’all in the South, youse in certain northern dialects, and you guys (now regarded as gender-neutral) nationwide.

You’s takeover of singular senses was the result of linguistic evolution. For some reason, thou and thee came to seem dated, even quaint, and people mostly stopped using them.

With they/them/their, it’s a different matter: The nonstandard form has come to be seen as nondiscriminatory. It’s neither male nor female. Hence people argue that they/them/their should be regarded as acceptable singulars in Standard Written English.

Fuddy-duds have argued that if they can refer to a single person, the proper usage would be They was there. This is a silly nonstarter. We say You were there in reference to a single person, keeping the plural verb. They was continues to be nonstandard English and probably always will be.

Unsurprisingly, the transgender-pronoun aspect of the culture wars has reached the courts. On January 15 of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed down a decision on point. The court had been officially asked to refer to a prisoner by the prisoner’s own preferred pronouns — she and her. While incarcerated on a child-pornography conviction, Norman Varner had decided to become Katherine Jett. Varner wanted to change the name on Varner’s judgment of confinement. (You see? It becomes awfully awkward forswearing pronouns altogether, but choosing a pronoun necessarily involves a political choice.) Varner hadn’t had a legal name change and hadn’t undergone sex-reassignment surgery. But Varner had taken hormones and planned to have the surgery.

Various courts, in opinions dating all the way back to 1993, had informally acquiesced in requests to call transgender people by their preferred pronouns — as a courtesy. But the Fifth Circuit took the motion to be asking, at a minimum, that all lawyers and court personnel be required to refer to Varner at all times with female pronouns. And Varner’s request was based on subjective identity, not biological fact.

The court refused Varner’s motion on four grounds: (1) No authority could be found supporting a mandate that everybody use a particular pronoun in referring to “gender-dysphoric litigants”; (2) the courts are often asked to decide cases that turn on hotly debated issues of sex and gender identity, and requiring a particular pronoun might compromise judicial impartiality (in the same way that using victim can compromise it when there’s a question whether a crime has actually been committed); (3) there’s a slippery slope, given that a mandatory herself in this case would lead to a mandatory xemself in the next, leading to communicative snarls; and (4) such an order, if granted, might give rise to contempt sanctions against anyone engaged in “misgendering.”

The judicial votes in the case were 2–1. The dissenting judge referred to Varner as she and her throughout, suggesting that it was a matter of “respect for the litigant’s dignity.” The basic outcome of the case — denial of the name change — would have been the same on all the judges’ views. The majority ruled on grounds of no jurisdiction; the dissenter would have ruled on the merits and summarily affirmed. The result for Varner would have been the same: a loss.

Instead, though, most of the 17 pages in the opinion, which must have taken more than a week to research and write, were devoted to pronoun usage. Nearly 50 precedents were cited (36 by the majority, nine by the dissenter), together with many court rules and law-review articles.

Reactions to the case were predictably divided: Cultural conservatives applauded what they saw as the sane approach of the majority; LGBTQ+ advocates were incensed at its perceived callousness.

Some years ago, for my Oxford University Press book Garner’s Modern English Usage, I devised the Language-Change Index. On a scale of 1 to 5, you can chart the correctness or incorrectness of a linguistic innovation. You might say I was reacting against the binary nature of the prescriptivist right–wrong dichotomy.

In short, I developed a scale for judging errors. It’s almost a study in linguistic epidemiology. In the 2016 edition of the book, I rank the most common errors in English in one of these five stages.

Stage 1 involves linguistic blunders — wrong words and outright grammatical errors. My clinical description is that a new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage. Stage 1 misusages range from ain’t to brung to baited breath (for the correct bated breath). It also includes malapropisms, as when someone refers to a fuselage of criticism directed at the president when fusillade is the intended word. A Stage 1 misusage is unequivocally wrong.

Stage 2 involves a less serious error — less serious only because more people make it. At this stage, the form has spread to a significant portion of the language community. It may even occasionally find its way into print, but copy editors (unless they’re asleep on the job) will reliably mark it as wrong. In this category, for example, fall the use of alumni and criteria and phenomena as singulars (for alum/alumnus/alumna [same old problem], criterion, and phenomenon); sherbert (for the correct sherbet); and between you and I (for between you and me).

Stage 3 involves misusages that have become so common that even many well-educated people make them. Examples include gladiola (for gladiolus) and gladiolas (for gladioli or gladioluses); miniscule (for minuscule); neither of them are (for neither of them is); and not that big of a deal (for not that big a deal).

Many people regard Stage 4 “errors” as not being errors at all. They’re so common that only grammatical sticklers and highly traditional copy editors still think them wrong. Examples include hone in on (for home in on — it originally referred to homing devices); the reason is because (for the reason is that); unbeknownst (for unbeknown); and hopefully (in the sense “I hope”). Mind you, it’s not that people will misunderstand the “erroneous” forms. It’s just that they’re not part of Standard Written English in its traditional form.

Stage 5 usages aren’t misusages by any reasonable person’s measure. They might have originated as errors, but over time they’ve become unquestionably standard in the eyes of connoisseurs. The quintessential example is self-deprecating. H. W. Fowler, in 1926, regarded that phrase as a mistake, insisting that it should be self-depreciating. Other usage commentators agreed, but even in 1926 self-deprecating had probably made it to Stage 3. By the late 20th century, it was clearly at Stage 5: In the publishing world, self-deprecating appeared in preference to self-depreciating in the overwhelming number of instances. Today, anyone who insists on the six-syllable version is hopelessly antiquated and will draw only blank stares from listeners.

If a word or phrase moves from Stage 1 to Stage 5, that progression might take centuries. It rarely happens in a matter of decades. And it rarely happens with part of the core vocabulary in the language — words of extremely high frequency, such as pronouns.

So here’s the rub with they. In 2000, the sentence If a student feels that they must study, they should be allowed to would have been regarded as Stage 1. Downright wrong. A bungle. In the same year, though, A student who feels that their exam might not have been graded correctly may appeal would have been regarded as Stage 2 or 3. The singular their was regarded less wrong than the singular they, probably because their had come to answer so commonly for anybody, everyone, etc.

Fast-forward to 2020. Dictionaries and stylebooks have begun sanctioning those same sentences as Stage 5 — mostly because of social pressures. Within 20 years or so, an elemental part of the language has arguably moved from Stage 1 to Stage 5.

In the last five years alone, the singular they has been accepted (mostly for transgender people) by most style guides, starting with the Washington Post in 2015 and most recently, in 2019, by The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style, together with the style guides of the New York Times and professional associations such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association. That trend of acceptance by professional copy editors was largely credited with swaying members of the American Dialect Society in voting for the singular they as the society’s word of the decade for 2010–2019.

Traditionalists won’t have it. Progressives champion it. Arguments ensue, neither side typically understanding the other’s viewpoint.

Although predictions of the future are often fruitless, it’s fair to say that the progressives will vanquish all opposition. As I wrote in the 1998 version of my usage dictionary, “they has increasingly moved toward singular senses. . . . Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they’re irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them.”

What I couldn’t have predicted, when writing that, was that the transgender-rights movement would prove to be the tipping point. But it was. So in September 2019, Merriam-Webster announced four subsenses of they: (1) with a singular indefinite antecedent (No one has to go if they don’t want to); (2) with a singular antecedent to refer to an unknown or unspecified person (An employee with a grievance can file a complaint if they need to); (3) in reference to an individual whose gender is intentionally not revealed (A student claimed that they had heard about it); and (4) in reference to an individual person whose gender identity is nonbinary (Shelley, who calls themself “intersex,” claims that they feel liberated by the new nomenclature).

Three months after adding these senses with a public-relations splash, Merriam-Webster named they as word of the year on the basis of a 313 percent increase in lookups. Of course, the lookups occurred largely because of its own press release and tweets. So the company itself was partly responsible for the increased curiosity about the word.

What remains to be seen is how the new uses of they will play out in Standard Written English. How much ambiguity will it cause? How often will pronoun references become unclear? To take the most extreme instance, how will criminal statutes be drafted? A person is guilty of conspiracy if, together with one or more others, they . . . Does that they refer to the single person or to the people acting together? Hundreds of thousands of statutes and regulations might need to be rewritten if the singular they becomes a preferred policy.

Or maybe not. Maybe the singular they will just be another option beside generic he, generic she, and the explicit but clumsy he or she. But if that happens, the agitation will continue, as those three “binary” options will be seen as tendentious by “woke” progressives.

Is the singular they really Stage 5? Yes, in some people’s eyes. But in others’ eyes, it’s a Stage 3 or Stage 4. As with so many linguistic changes, the new uses won’t really be Stage 5 until a whole generation dies off. Some Baby Boomers may accept it, but many others won’t. Yet their successors probably will.

How future generations will deal with disambiguating they as either singular or plural in Standard Written English remains to be seen. They’ll doubtless find a way.

Meanwhile, watch for the rise of hypernyms in everyday speech and writing — general terms (vehicle, for example) that subsume more specific categories (car, motorcycle, SUV, etc.). You’re going to see fewer references to men and women (people, please); sons and daughters (children); boys and girls (children); husband and wife (spouses); fathers and mothers (parents); etc. Schools may have to rethink Dad’s Day and Mom’s Day, and society at large may be asked to reform Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. If the language reinforces binary notions of gender, some will rankle at every such reference.

Seemingly anodyne conversations may come to be seen as provocations: “Do you have any children?” we’re all frequently asked.

“Yes,” someone might say. “I have a four-year-old son.”

“And how would you presume to know that? They’re not yet old enough to decide!”

This article appears as “Sex and the Singular Pronoun” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Bryan A. Garner — Mr. Garner is the author of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, Garner’s Modern English Usage, and The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

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