Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"They" as a Singular Pronoun

            In perusing the Review section of the WSJ last Saturday (4/11/15), I came across the headline “Can We Take ‘They’ as a Singular Pronoun?” I realize the admission of the slightest interest in such a subject puts me in a class of weirdoes right up there with crossword puzzle competitors (watch the documentary Crossplay) and Trekkies. But a one-third page article was dedicated to this question, so there must be a respectable number of us around.
            The article reported that the question had been discussed at length in the “Ask a Lexicographer” session at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. I could be wrong, but somehow I can’t imagine these conference attendees posting Facebook pics of themselves lounging in the hot tub while sipping drinks with little umbrellas. Talk about an intimidating group. Surrounded by such esteemed literati, I would have been too terrified to utter a word. I break out in a cold sweat just knowing the group exists. And, as if a society of editors weren’t already intimidating enough, check out the acronym: ACES. I wonder how long it took the charter members to come up with that. (Come to think of it, probably not long.)
Problem solved. The ACES have spoken.
            But as it turns out, ACES members proved not to be the stuffy traditionalists I’d envisioned. The consensus, it appears, is that not only is it acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun but it is preferred over the cumbersome alternatives of “he or she,” “he/she,” or “s/he.” As an amateur writer, I’m glad to have this issue resolved. As a former English teacher, I’m experiencing mild guilt over all those times I marked “they” with a big, red PAA (faulty pronoun-antecedent agreement.) Notice I said "mild guilt." I’ll get over it, as I’m sure all my former pupils have.
            The English language is a complex and evolving organism. What works in one century . . . decade . . . year, doesn’t necessarily translate well to the following. The use of “they” as a singular pronoun has been gaining momentum ever since the 1970s, when the generic “he” became too sexist. And women of my generation learned quickly to stop saying “thongs” when referring to our sandals.
            Despite my lighthearted jabs at ACES, I’m actually very grateful the society exists. Something as malleable and yet so critical to civilization as language needs a watchdog to ensure change stays within reason. Otherwise, pandemonium will ensue and what then? Participles dangling precariously like the last autumn leaf on a tree?  Infinitives split with all the destructive force of splitting the atom? The elimination of “whom” from our vocabulary? It’s a slippery slope.                

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8 comments:

  1. Oh boy. What is the world coming to!?
    I have a feeling this one might take a bit of time to become standard but it's good to know because sometimes it feels like the right word.

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    1. Know how you feel, Mari. As one who went from writing and teaching academic writing to writing creatively, I've had to do a lot of adjusting. Like you, I find this change a little more easy to accept than some of the others I've encountered. I never liked having to choose between "he" or "she," and "he or she" was two words too many. As far as using "s/he"? Nope.

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  2. This is revolutionary!

    I've always felt some critical presence hanging over me as I write, and as I read your opening paragaph I decided it was the Society of Editors. But maybe they are too loosey-goosey to care anymore!

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    1. I feel that presence every time I write, Sonia! I always suspected it was the English department head at the first school I taught at, but now that you mention it, it might be the Society of Editors.

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  3. I sympathize with the difficulty, given the unsatisfactory options. But I can't quite bring myself to accept the compromise. I think we need a new pronoun altogether, coined for the occasion. I propose "le." It fits the she/he pattern and has the strength of linguistic/historical antecedents to support it. :-)

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    1. The WSJ article actually mentioned that solution, Mama Bird. It explained that the Swedes faced the same problem and have solved it with the pronoun "hen," borrowing from "han" ("he") and "hon" ("she"). Some suggestions have been put forth for English, among them "thon," "xe," and "ze." I think you make a good case for "le."

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  4. YEAH!!! When I started my blog a couple of years ago, I ignored criticism on that issue b/c I wanted gender-neutral posts and I just wasn't willing to go with the burden of including both genders in each statement that called for a pronoun. Occasionally I would alternate between the two if it worked with the piece. Mostly I stuck with my rebel position of using "they" and "them" in the singular. Apparently, I have now lost rebel-status. I shall miss it.

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    1. Don't despair, Shel. Something tells me you'll maintain that rebel status in other areas of your life. ;-)

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