Thursday, April 14, 2016

A language post

Singular they has finally made headlines. For the non-linguists on board, this is the use of they as a singular pronoun in place of the masculine he or the clumsy he or she. We all use it in situations like this:
A: There's someone at the door for you.   
B: Tell them to go away.

The American Dialect Society declared singular they their 2015 Word of the Year because it is finally coming to be accepted as "correct". Its been around forever (see below) but was demonized in the 19th century by the writers of the newly popular grammar books and has been kept in its place ever since by schoolmarms and timid copy editors. It never went away, and everyone uses it, even those who decry its use. Now it is finding favor a a gender-free pronoun among transgenders and genderqueers, those who don't identify as male or female. At many American universities students are now allowed to indicate which pronouns they use: he, she, ze, e, they. Facebook will let you select they as your pronoun, too, so you can have your friends reminded to "Wish them a happy birthday." And the Washington Post made headlines early this year when it changed its style guide to allow the use of singular they in the newspaper. I can't wait for the MLA to get on board so I can allow my students to use it in their writing. The prohibition is stupid and the sooner it ends the better.

For the purists among you, here's the literary record.
In the other places, everybody knew me, or at least they knew what I was there for.  (Dorothy Sayers, Murder Must Advertise)
The fact is, I never loved any one well enough to put myself into a noose for them.  (George Eliot, Middlemarch)
Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues.    (Philippians 2:3, King James Version)
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.  (Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, act IV scene 3)
...and so many others.


  1. Here in the West of England, if anyone knocks on the door, the standard and correct response is, "Tell they to go away".

    1. ("Afore I kick she in the arse...")

    2. Really? she? I would have expected ye.

    3. No, sorry - it's "Afore I kick thee up thine fundament".

    4. Well at least it's not she!