(Posted by Jim Winter)
Last week, I managed to stir the pot with my opinions on Reagan and of the recent Discovery Channel poll of great Americans. One of the results was an interesting back blog debate between my fellow guest bloggers Claire and Jeff as to male and female and gender roles and designations. During that discussion, Jeff made the point that “man” and “he” are often used as gender-neutral and came up with the following:
“‘they’ is grammatically incorrect in the singular.”
Let’s stop and think about that, shall we? Why is it grammatically incorrect? The obvious answer is that it’s plural and not singular, therefore it is grammatically wrong. To which I ask, why should it be?
If you look at the history of the English language, it becomes clear that “they” used for gender non-specific singular is more than feasible. In fact, it’s almost mandatory. Why? English has no gender-nonspecific singular pronoun except “it.” “It” doesn’t cut the mustard (another point Jeff made.) “Yes,” you say, “but one can always use ‘he’ or ‘she’ randomly to fill in the blanks.”
To which I say, that don’t cut it, either, kiddo.* English often uses plural pronouns in place of singular. In fact, you and I use one such pronoun everyday. And if that’s acceptable, so is they as singular gender nonspecific. What is it?
Well, let’s look at a more obvious example first. The royal “we.” We (meaning all or most or at least a large number of us) use “we” in place of “I” from time to time. Royalty used it to denote their place above the fray. Now, granted, “we” meaning “I” has fallen out of favor and for good reason. When you say “I,” everyone knows who your talking about. To use “we” as singular, given its history, is just plain pompous and quite a bit useless.
“So what’s this pronoun we use everyday?” you say. What pronoun sets the precedent for “they” being grammatically correct? Well, do you hear people saying “thou/thee/thine” a lot these days for second person? You don’t? You know why? Because speakers of English sometime around the age when Cotton Mather was burning witches because some little girl had bad dreams** decided the royal “you” was more efficient than using “thou” for singular and “you” for plural. Now, based on the criteria of why “they” singular is grammatically incorrect, “you” is also used incorrectly billions of times a day. Why all of you should be ashamed of yourselves for referring to the person thou’re talking to as “you.” It’s deplorable, a travesty. It might…
Change the language.
Is that the problem? We can’t have “they” be singular third person because, heaven forbid, the language might change, grow…
But the language has to. One of the great aspects of the English language is its adaptability. Having “it” as the only gender nonspecific pronoun is really a major flaw in the language in that it implies an inanimate object. So why not “they”? If we’ve already ditched “thou” for “you,” “they” is a no-brainer. Certainly better than the synthetic s/he or the inadvertantly sexist “he” (or “she” for that matter. What? Without a penis was bad, so now without one is? That’s just repeating the problem, not solving it.)
Quite frankly, the ban on “they” singular has to go. Unless someone comes up with something better, people should embrace the singular “they” as a part of everyday language.
“But that goes against tradition!”
Screw tradition. It’s also traditional that a woman take her husband’s last name. If you think going against that grain is dead wrong, my wife, whose legal last name is McCarty, would like to have a word with you.***
English is supposed to be a living, breathing, changing language, and usage changes it. Using “they” to refer to a person of indeterminate gender is only logical. All it does is add a new meaning to the word, one that’s already in use. Do we want our language to stagnate and die? Let me know, because there’s a Berlitz school in the building where I work. I can always go find something more adaptable and less rigid there.
*Yes, I’m aware that’s grammatically incorrect. I’m sprinkling fairy dust here, though. Work with me.
**Yes, I’m being overly simplistic. Again, work with me here.
***My mother-in-law refuses to call her anything but Mrs. Winter, despite my insistence she’s disrespecting my wife’s name. We’ve agreed to not discuss the subject during holidays.