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.

25 Comments on “Time For A Change In The Language”

  1. I have no problem with “they” or some other sort of word being used as a singular pronoun in that way. It makes just as much sense as creating a better plural form of “you”. Of course, those of us who live in the South have already done that with “y’all”, and we really don’t mind if use of it spreads. “Y’all” may make some grammar freaks squirm, but it’s a whole lot better than “youse guys.”

  2. Born in Philly, I grew up listening to yous[e] guys. All though in my experience, it’s much more common to hear someone say yous[e]. Yous[e] guys seems to be more a product of mafia movies than anything else. The one thing I’ll give it over ya’ll is that it is definitely plural. I lived in Texas for a while, and ya’ll seemed to be used in the singular and the plural.
    What are kids being taught in school? I graduated in 1998 – and was taught to pick a gender and stick with it, or do the s/he thing.

  3. One thing that’s missing from this discussion so far is that “they” is a singular in UK English. It is only US English that holds out. I am driven nuts by this because I was schooled by British teachers up through 4th grade and still have trouble adapting to the odd things Americans hold as absolute truth. The use of “they” as singular has a long history even in classic literature. It’s not a new thing, it’s not a fad, it’s something America has deliberately chosen to ignore for whatever nonsensical reason and one that I’ve never heard articulated to the point that most Americans don’t even know that a singular they is common usage in the “other” English.

    /me gets off soapbox and goes back to pluralizing phrases because “he” bugs me and he/she is darn right ugly.

  4. I don’t know why there’s even any debate about this. Are you guys old or something? “they” as singular gender-nonspecific pronoun is nearly mainstream at this point. Debates about language stability are silly – language isn’t stable.

    This hit home to me in a big way yesterday when I was playing Matrix Online and got into a discussion with another player about what we were doing in the game – I kept noticing myself using horribly dated idioms that nobody really uses anymore. FTR, I’m 40. I can’t remember specifically what I said, just that I knew that most of it was from movies that no teenager has ever seen unless they’re obsessive about late-night TV.

    Point being, the language is yours. Use it as you see fit, and when someone debates your usage, smile, nod, and keep doing what you think is right without an iota of guilt, because it is you who makes the language, not the nattering nabobs of normalcy.

  5. “They” as a singular neutral pronoun is several hundred years old. It’s not new: it’s not sloppy: it’s not even slang. It’s been used in very respectable writing all along. What’s odd is having this argument over and over and over again.

  6. Although it makes sense, the problem is that people LIKE to have two different terms for singular/plural. Since “you” became singular, we have crafted various plural forms of the word — I’ve heard “y’all”, “yous”, “you all”, and here in the midwest I simply can’t stop myself from saying “you guys” when speaking of more than one.

    I don’t even like saying “you guys” — I think it sounds silly, but it comes out of my mouth on its own. My brain needs to differentiate between singluar and plural. Same with using “they” as a singular: I do it, but I feel awkward. Like I’m not being accurate, or not specific enough.

  7. I’m open to correction on this point, but my understanding is that “you” was not brought over from the second-person plural to be the singular as well.

    Instead, what was lost was a distinction between the second-person singular informal (“thou”) and the second-person singular formal (“you”).

    It so happens that the same word (“you”) is also the second-person plural, but that had nothing to do with the historical change we’re talking about.

    Again, I may be confused here, but I believe German still has the situation lost in English – one word meaning second-person singular informal (“du”) and one meaning second-person singular formal and also meaning second-person plural (“Sie”).

    All this aside, I still agree with you that “they” is a useful word to move from third-person plural to third-person non-specific singular. In context it doesn’t even have the potential for confusion that there is in “you” where it’s not always clear whether singular or plural is meant.

  8. This debate has always struck me as being sort of stupid because “he” as a sexually-neutral pronoun is a Victorian neologism. (“They” is also more traditional as a result.)

    And grammarians who take issue with “they” being ungrammatical are being selective. How than “they” be ungrammatical, yet “he” not so when referring to both sexes?

  9. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a large sampling of singular theys over time:

    And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
    They wol come up…
    –Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue”

    And every one to rest themselves betake
    –Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

    …if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses
    –Matthew 18:35

    I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.
    –Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

    …who ever thought of sparing their grandmother worry?
    –Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

    …it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy
    –W.H. Auden, Encounter, February 1955

    If somebody wants to claim Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, etc. used the language badly, then … well, good for them.

  10. I first noticed the gender-neutral pronoun argument when I purchased my reference books for Introductory Composition as a freshman in college. Let’s see: in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (4th edition, copyright 2000), they disparage the use of a singular “they” for gender neutral discussions as grammatically incorrect (pg. 60). They suggest “he or she” instead, but complain (pg. 61) that this usage is tiresome. Best just to stick with “he,” they claim, as “The use of ‘he’ as a pronoun embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language.”

    Meanwhile, in A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker (3rd edition, copyright 1995), there is actaully a section on “Avoiding sexist language” (pg. 108), sandwiched neatly being the sections on avoiding regional slang and passive voice. A Writer’s Reference recommends the use of the singular “they”; the book admonishes the reader to avoid the use a gender-neutral “he,” because it is an example of “sexist or sterotypical language” which “encourages the view that men are somehow more suited to be journalists, doctors, and so on.” Tsk, tsk.

    Scott: do you have a reference for your Victorian neologism? I’d be interested in hearing more about the origin of “he” as the gender-neutral default pronoun.

  11. I have made it clear to girlfriends that if we were to be married, I would support her retaining her historical identity of keeping her own last name as long as they would support my historical identity of sleeping with multiple women. Seems like a fair & even trade to me.

  12. It has taken 10 years for my father to figure out that 1) it’s not illegal to keep your maiden name,
    2) there is no such person as Lisa Shalek and 3) his daughter is one of those (gasp) feminists.

    My in-laws have no problem with my name and in general are quite supportive. I lucked out with them, I tell you.

  13. Dear-oh-dear. What’s that rule about compulsory typos in any post about grammar?

    Lycan: I do hope you don’t mind if she then uses that as grounds for divorcing you and giving the children her last name! Seems that would be the fair & even & natural outcome.

  14. “I have made it clear to girlfriends that if we were to be married, I would support her retaining her historical identity of keeping her own last name as long as they would support my historical identity of sleeping with multiple women.”

    Fortunately, I’m not as insecure about Diane’s decision.

    Just extremely annoyed with my mother-in-law, who’s more outraged than my mother was. Talk about someone with no say in the matter.

  15. Simon: German actually has three second person pronouns. Second person singular intimate, du; second person singular/plural polite, Sie; and second person plural intimate, ihr. (This last was sometimes translated in my German classes as “you-guys”.)

  16. Simon: I’m not an expert on this, but I’ve been looking through the OED “thou” and “you” definitions, and it seems both these changes happened, in progression.
    In Old English “thou” (or rather its ancestor) was 2P singular nominative, “ye” was 2P plural nominative, and “you” was 2P plural accusative or dative.
    If my analysis of the OED’s statements is correct, there was originally no polite 2P in English, but at some point we took up the 2P plurals for that purpose. (Latin did the same.) Along the way, we started to replace “ye” with “you.” Once that was done, or at least underway, “you” became more and more general, encompassing first superiors, then also equals, until “thou” was finally pushed out.
    So essentially, it moved from general plural to polite, and then from polite to all-purpose.
    It must have been interesting for those people back in the 14th century when it started to replace “ye,” though. To them “you are” must have sounded as dreadful as “me am”!

    Here are temporary links to the “thou” and “you” definitions. Apparently this comment system doesn’t like links, so:

  17. Interesting about German have more than the usual two version of “you” singular. I know in Latin languages, at least in Spanish, there are “tu,” which is singular informal; “usted,” which is singular formal, and “ustedes,” which is pretty much plural. Once upona, they also used “vosotros,” which was supposed to be the plural of “tu.” I can see why it fell out of common use. It sounds too much like the Spanish “we,” which is “nosotros.”

  18. Plural intimate? Those wacky Germans.

    For the record, let it not be said that I am against changing the language, or removing cause for sexist offense from modern writing. What I am against is enforcing turgid writing styles in the same of the above. There are times when “they” is the best word choice, times when it’s “he”, and even times when “he or she” is the most euphonious. But I’ll stand by my statements that the word “he” has a meaning in English that is non-gendered, and hence can be used without necessarily plunging us all into debates on gender politics.

  19. Jackie M: the usual cited source for the history of ‘singular they’ is the rather comprehensive Anne Bodine paper in the Journal “Language and Society” (Vol 4, 1975). She also covers generic ‘he’ and some other variants in the article.

    Complaints about the use of singular ‘they’ were a bit earlier than the “Victorians” (the earliest criticisms about its ‘ungrammaticality’ on record appear to date to around 1800), but certainly was extremely widespread during the Victorian era; not surprising given the birth of public education, the continuing rise of the middle class, etc.

  20. English usage changes over time. It’s about time for a singular they.

    BTW, the Salem witches, to whom you allude, were not burned. They were hanged or, in at least one case, pressed to death with stones.

  21. Since we’re talking about German and gender-neutral language, you might find it interesting that when Germans say “one” (as in “One needn’t use a gendered pronoun at all if one doesn’t wish to.”), the Germans use man. This is a completely different word from the German word for “man”, which is Mann. (Please note the capital m and double n. Germans capitalize all nouns.) On the other hand, man as a pronoun is not capitalized.

    In all Germanic languages, some form of “man” means both male human and general human. Since the women’s movement in Germany, PC has been an issue there, too, with reference to gendering neutral words. Some suggested changes have taken and some haven’t. Their response to the pronoun man is to replace it occasionally with frau, also lowercase, unlike the capitalized Frau, which is the noun for “woman”. The use of frau is largely mocked and rarely used. In this way, our strategy of switching off “he” and “she” or using “s/he” is actually more successful than the use of frau.

    On the other hand, the Germans never stopped gendering nouns that refer to occupations, while Americans did. (“actor”, “executor”, “poet” etc. all refer to both men and women, whereas Germans would still refer to women as “actress”, “executrix” and “poetess”.) The German female suffix is -in. When referring to an individual, the noun is still gendered appropriately, but the accepted PC usage now has groups of people referred to thus: male students would be Studenten, female students would be Studentinnen; male and female students are now StudentInnen with a capital “i”. No one complains of this anymore.

  22. I was given to understand that in speech, the ‘neutral’ form is “Studenten und Studentinnen”. And that this (otherwise rather bulky) formula has become the unmarked form.

  23. Another vote for singular “they”!

    And for punctuation outside of quotes unless quoting punctuation, but that’s another battle…

    My wife also kept her own name, feeling that it would look better on a book spine than it would had she taken mine. I had to agree, and that’s a wonderful argument, not that I really cared.

    When people asked me if she had “taken my name” I always replied, “No, I’m not done with it yet.”

    Her relatives still haven’t caught on. When told that she’s still “Miller” most just seem to not hear that, although one does send stuff to “Miller-Ensley” about half the time. *sigh*

  24. The anglo-saxon “man” meant human as claire pointed out just above. In english, this is not sexist, it’s just the word for human, albeit in its archaic form. Personally, I’m not aware of the use of “him” or “his” in a generic form. These are gender-specific pronouns and personally I tend to use them that way.

    Unlike the romantic (roman-ish) languages, like french, spanish or italian, english really has never had much use for a formal form of the second person pronoun – pretty much just you-singular and you-plural. French uses “tu” for second person singular and “vous” for both second person plural and the formal sense of the second person. Minivet hit on all points in his comment above. I have a bachelors degree and most of a masters in English Lit. with a concentration in pre-1500 language and literature and took several courses in Anglo-Saxon way back when and I can confirm what Minivet says to be true. In fact, bits and pieces of what everybody has said is true. English is a highly mutable language – true. “They” can be used, has been used and is used in a singular gender-neutral way – true (good research Matt Cheney).

    So, we don’t really need to change the language. It works quite nicely just the way it is. The reason why english is so mutable is that its nouns and verbs fall either into a “strong” or “weak” category. The stronger the noun or verb, the more germanic/ango-saxon it tends to be, and the more it mutates when its tense or number changes (goose/geese, I am/I was, etc.). Weak nouns and verbs maintain their root and take on a simple ending to denote the change in number or inflection (boat/boats, I talk/I talked). It was very simple to add new words to the language as the culture developed and new ideas were introduced over time – just add an “s” for plural and “ed” for the past tense. Dutch is probably English’s closest cousin with similar patterns of leveling its inflections.

    Anyway, them’s my two cents… (analyse that).

  25. I have come up with a new meaning to a word that is published twice with different meaning. I know of a third meaning that I think should be in the dictionary. I sent this word to a company called Davison Inventegration. They sent me a contract to sign. My problem is they wanted me to use the word on bumper stickers and make a slogan to go with it. I am not quite sure as what to do. Does anyone have any advice for me?