Today I’m going to teach you how to be a grammar rebel. We’re going to learn how to participate in social change and the evolution of our language by altering the way we use pronouns. One specific pronoun actually: they.
But before we can get to that, we have to spend a few moments being grammar nerds.
Language is on the Move
One of the (many) fascinating things about language is that it is constantly evolving. As our culture develops and changes the way we communicate does too. The spoken word tends to lead the way, with the written word lagging behind. Case in point: remember when we all started internet searching (ahem, getting the dirt on our love interests and exes) back in the early 2000s? It wasn’t long before “Google it” became a common turn of phrase. But, it wasn’t until 2006 that the verb “to Google” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Linguist John McWhorter, the host of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, unpacks this phenomenon in his book Words on the Move: Why English Won’t and Can’t Sit Still (Like Literally). If you’re in the mood for 50 minutes of really interesting insight into McWhorter’s thoughts on the matter, check out this episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain.
McWhorter makes the case that the transformation of the English language is completely natural and to be embraced. After all, if language was totally stagnant, we would still be speaking Old English. Remember Beowulf, people? Imagine if we still said things like “Since erst he lay friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him: for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve”? I, for one, am okay trading the word “welkin” for “cloud.”
Vive La Résistance!
Now, let’s talk about one way that you can participate in shifting the English language by using “they” and “their” as singular pronouns. It may not sound all that edgy, but this issue has sparked heated debate over the past few years. To understand why, let’s first review the old pronoun agreement rules that we all learned back in school.
If you are referring to one woman you use she (or her).
If you are referring to one man you use he (or him).
If you are referring to multiple people you use they (or their).
If you are referring to a single person for whom the gender is not specified . . . well, this is where it gets funky.
Here are two examples that demonstrate the old-school solutions to a situation where a person whose gender isn’t specified needs to be referred to with a pronoun.
Now, imagine instead if we could just write these two sentences in the way we’d most likely utter them aloud (if we were sure the Grammar Police weren’t listening):
Here are some reasons why I think these sentence constructions are a) preferable and b) totally kosher:
They take a tiny sledgehammer to the patriarchy. People, it’s 2018. Women are just as likely to be doing or being whatever it is we’re writing about, so let’s not default to male pronouns.
They are gender-inclusive. Given the whole spectrum of gender identities, a nonbinary gender pronoun is the most respectful choice we can make in sentences where gender is unspecified.
They uncomplicate the flow of the language. No more awkward “s/he” or “he or she”. No more rewriting sentences in convoluted ways to avoid plurals.
Right Back to Where We Started From
Time to put your Grammar Nerd Hat back on. While the singular use of “they” seems revolutionary, it was actually used by writers well before our time including Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. In fact, the generic “he” became a thing because men wrote the books (like the popular reference The Elements of Style) and found it to be a convenient solution in a male-dominated world.
Only recently did the arbiters of English grammar come (back) around to the use of the singular “they”. The American Dialect Society named the singular “they” Word of the Year in 2015. And in 2017, the Associated Press added an entry for the singular, gender-neutral “they” in its latest edition.
With the approval of these major organizations, it would seem that the tide is turning, but there are still some staunch holdouts out there—from your 10th grade English teacher to controversial clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. When you use the singular “they” you should still anticipate that there are going to be some readers who assume you’re making an error. However, that’s a small price to pay for being a part of a small but important grammatical revolution. As long as you understand the rule that you’re helping to rewrite, you can feel proud to know that you’re part of the evolution of the English language.
Way to go, grammar rebels!