Word Nerd: A Most Singular “They”
4 years ago
Grr... someone just totally used they as a singular at a Facebook post: If I saw someone with their hands in their pockets I’d shout at them. What an idiot! You should say he; or if you’re trying to be all PC about it, you should say he or she! Don’t bring me this grammatically inaccurate shit, just because you’re trying to avoid “offending” people! What’s this world coming to?
Ha-hah, I’m fucking with you. Of course I’m going to shoot that shit down.
So let’s talk about inflection. Most of you know this stuff, but it’s good to cover the basics.
Inflection (sometimes also spelled inflexion) is the process whereby a basic word is changed – usually by adding prefixes or suffixes, sometimes by changing a vowel or straight-up changing the whole goddamn word like a hero* – to do different jobs. Most words are subject to inflection; the few exceptions (or “invariants”), like must, are mostly words that don’t fit neatly into categories like “verb” or “adjective” and do odd jobs the English language needs them to do. Inflection of a verb is also called conjugation, while the inflection of a noun or other word is called declension.†
So a number of things can inform an inflection. Odds are, if you’ve ever studied another language, you’ve looked at a “noun table,” with number and gender along the top and case down the left; you’ve certainly used a “verb table,” with number along the top and tense down the side. Some languages are elaborately inflected, like German,‡ while others, like Mandarin, are essentially uninflected, creating meaning through context and by adding words. English is less inflected than most languages; as a rule, we have to remember at most four or five versions of a verb, three versions of a noun and one version of an adjective, and we basically never use case.
On Old English and Ubiquitous Gender
But ’tweren’t always like this. Old English was richly inflected; we had the full spectrum of cases, no less than three numbers (singular I, plural we and dual wit, or “we two”), and, of course, gender. Like French – in which (formally, at least) a dog is always un chien even if it’s a bitch, and a table is always une table even if it’s whatever a boy table is – every word in OE was feminine, masculine or neuter. As such, the pronouns he, heo and hit (he, she and it) didn’t necessarily have anything to do with someone’s gender as an individual, but with grammatical gender: a frosc (frog) was a he, while a hand (hand, obv) was always a heo, and a dor (door) was definitely a hit.
So the Anglo-Saxons never had to trouble themselves about what pronoun to use for someone whose gender they didn’t know. It all depended on the pronoun’s antecedent! Mann (person) was a masculine noun, so most of the time, he would suffice, but if you’d used a feminine or neuter noun, you’d use the appropriate pronoun when the time came. It’s not so much that they had a clear policy for dealing with this notoriously thorny problem, it’s that the problem didn’t exist in the language they spoke.
On Middle English and a New Problem
Enter Middle English. Obviously what happens when a country with a fully gendered language is invaded and culturally colonised by a country with another fully gendered language is that their languages combine to form a largely ungendered one, because reasons. Suddenly, the English had two pronouns – he and she – that were really only ever used for people (and animals you liked a bunch and knew the sex of, and some other animals like hares, and ships), and one pronoun – it – that you used all the rest of the time for everything else. Which got us thinking about these words, and it became clear in pretty much zero time that you couldn’t call people it, because people are hes and shes and things are its and people who talk about other people like they’re things aren’t usually very nice people.
And so we had a new problem! What’s the correct pronoun for someone whose gender you don’t know? The dude at the shop today was clearly a he, but it might be his daughter tomorrow, and I have to tell someone what to ask one of them!
There were a number of possible solutions – in Northern England and Scotland, ha and hoo appeared as substitute pronouns in the late Middle Ages – but the enduring answer, it turned out, was the plural they. As Chaucer wrote in The Pardoner’s Prologue, “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,/ They wol come up...” Caxton’s Sonnes of Aymon, in 1499, gives us “Eche of theym sholde... make theymselfe redy.” In 1531, Wynkyn de Worde wrote, in The Pilgrim of Perfection, “Yf… a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yt. they omyt one verse or twayne.” Entering the modern age, Shakespeare even used it where the gender was obvious, as in A Comedy of Errors: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/ As if I were their well-acquainted friend.” Even the Bible got in on the act! According to Tyndale’s (1526) rendering of Matthew 18:35, “Forgeve with youre hertes eache one to his brother their treaspases,” and any number of English Bibles right up to the modern day use the same form. There are examples in Thackeray, Austen, Eliot, Walt Whitman and Lewis Carroll, to name but a few.
Enter the Grammarians
So where does the rule against the singular they come from? Who first said that we should use he when we don’t know someone’s gender? I’m sure you’ve seen this coming, but here are our old friends the eighteenth-century prescriptive grammarians.
Ironically enough, the injunction to use he for everyone comes from a woman: the writer, publisher and school proprietor Ann Fisher, whose A New Grammar (1745) states, “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says.” Fisher’s grammar, the first published by a woman,** proved hugely successful and influential – it was the fourth-most-printed of its century – which no doubt played a part when, in 1850, Parliament passed an Act enshrining the new usage of he in all laws.§
The Lesser of Two Evils
My main point, as always, is that the “right, traditional” approach is actually wholly modern and arbitrary, and the “wrong, new” approach is actually ancient and ubiquitous. Until one of the many proposed gender-neutral pronouns¶ finally takes off, we don’t have a true genderless singular plural other than it, and it’s out of the question. So your choice – unless you fancy championing one of the aforementioned new pronouns, and good luck to you – isn’t to break the rules or not, but to break the rule of agreement of number or to break the rule of agreement of gender. We’ve spent, as a culture, about seven hundred years cheerfully doing the former, while a small subset has spent a little over a third of that doing the latter (while the rest of us continued doing the former), and shouting at each other that everyone else is doing it wrong.
And is it any better? Yes, the singular they ends up demanding a plural verb as well as a plural pronoun, and sentences can end up getting kinda tangly, but you actually already do it more than you think. Consider singular nouns that describe groups of people. Should I say, “I’m meeting my girlfriend’s family today; I hope it’s nice,” or “I’m meeting my girlfriend’s family today; I hope they’re nice”? We’re pretty adept at jumping around number and tense if need be. It’s a playful, flexible language.
Meanwhile, it’s certainly possible for the neuter he to cause problems too. Consider Joseph P. Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin (1971), in which the author observes “She and Louis had a game – who could find the ugliest photograph of himself,” which hardly seems fair on Louis; or Albert Bleumenthal’s patently ridiculous address to the NY State Assembly in 1984, in which he asserted that “everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion.” You know, much appreciated, but kinda confusing, there.
And, in the end, the authorities have come round. Fowler allows it (while cautioning that it's still an ongoing debate, because Fowler); Oxford embraces it; Cambridge allows it; the Chicago Manual of Style loves it. The only real heavyweight in grammar circles still pushing back is the revered Strunk & White, and they can't hold out for long.
So basically, make up your mind whether you want to use he, they, he or she or he/she, or any modern alternative; but if you use they and anyone tells you you’re doing it wrong, tell them to fuck off.
*Like how went is the past-tense of go. That’s an odd, quirky one: English used to have the two verbs go (meaning “walk” or “travel”) and wend (“wander” or “turn”), with the past tenses yode and went; around the fifteenth century, the past tense yode fell out of use and the whole verb wend became less popular, and the past tense went hopped the fence and became part of go. Wend never totally disappeared – although chances are the only time you use it is in the phrase “wend my weary way” – so we invented the new past tense wended to stop it getting lonely. The only real insight we can take away from this is that English is really weird.
†These terms also work as verbs, so you conjugate a verb and decline a noun. Which means, yes, that conjugate and decline can be conjugated and conjugation and declension can be declined and oh god I need to lie down.
‡In which the possessive pronoun – which, by definition, is already in the genitive case – is further declined to agree with its head noun for case and number. Because fuck you, that’s why.
**Elizabeth Elstob published a grammar for Anglo-Saxon in 1715, but Fisher gets dibs on contemporary English.
§This is after the start of the feminist movement, mind you, so basically fuck you, Victorian politicians.
¶To my knowledge, zhe, se, ze, shhe, the and yo at least, although I’m sure there are many others.