Time For A Change In The Language

(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.


(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Summertime, and the living is orange.

I am on the down elevator to the Washington Metro trains, and an abandoned water bottle is on the floor in the back. Upright, maybe an inch or two of water in it. Clear sport bottle with a closed spout, no label.

This is not out of the ordinary. This is not uncommon. This is par for the course at the Metro stop for the National Zoo, where among the 20,000 tourists that passed through today you have to expect some cretins who treat the nation’s capital as their own personal trashcan. This is mundane detritus.

And yet….

There are plenty of chemical agents that dissolve in clear liquids. There are many such chemicals that aerosolize. Pinholes cannot be be seen from a standing height. And if I were the architect of a terrorist attack, what better way to ensure that my vector would stay undisturbed than to abandon it in plain sight, in an everyday object, as common trash that no one will deign to pick up?

Fifteen seconds have passed, the elevator is one-quarter of the way down to the platform, and I have considered the above. For the rest of the trip, I balance the following:

  1. The odds that this is in fact not an abandoned bottle of water. Estimate: nonzero, but exceedingly tiny.
  2. The odds that reporting this bottle of water, as we are asked to do in this time of extra vigilance (without much guidance as to what to be vigilant for), will tie me up for the rest of the evening, or cause the temporary closing of the station, or otherwise create a snowball effect that is far worse than the danger of a bottle of water. Estimate: low, but greater than “tiny”.

The doors are opening. I have decided to leave well enough alone.

At that moment, the overhead speakers are activated with a systemwide announcement reminding us that the Department of Homeland Security has raised all public transit systems to Code Orange (the rest of the nation remaining magically Yellow), and we should be certain to report any unattended items or anything else out of the ordinary.

The bottle of water is a perfectly ordinary unattended item. I report it. The station manager appears utterly unconcerned, and as I board the escalator descending to the train platform, he still has not left his booth.