Singular they

Vocabula Review published a piece today about the use of they as a generic, gender-free singular pronoun, as in the following: “If you love someone, set them free.” Many grammarians argue that the correct phrasing of such a thought would be, “If you love someone, set him or her free,” or, in an earlier era, “If you love someone, set him free,” regardless of the sex of the antecedent.

The writer, Jjoan Ttaber Altieri, cites historical examples dating back to Shakespeare and earlier of respected writers using they in this fashion. Most of her examples appear to have been cited from Henry Churchyard’s pages on the topic. She, and Churchyard (and other writers, such as Steven Pinker) before her, argue for the revival of they as an acceptable generic singular.

Altieri writes that the use of he for the generic is a relatively recent development, dating back to eighteenth-century grammarians in England. Writers and speakers before then commonly used they as a singular generic.

I accept their arguments and in principle I agree, but I’d be loath to accept this use of they in my writing or editing. The onus against it is still so strong that one who uses it, even consciously, is deemed a lesser writer for so doing. And although I know that’s silly on its face, I’ll still allow every grammarian dog to have his or her day.

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2 thoughts on “Singular they

  1. It’s not only silly on its face, it is silly through and through. English is not Latin, nor is there any good reason to use clunky expressions like “he or she” and “s/he” when we have a perfectly good word that has served us for a millennium.

  2. For what its worth, Chinese lacks a gendered pronoun. “Ta” means he or she depending on the person being talked about. Adding the plural -men to create the word “Tamen” gives you a word that means they.

    What you lose in specificity, you gain in the ability to make generalizations.

    I wonder if any language has both gendered “they”s (a word each for “those men” and “those women”) and a mixed gendered they (“those men and women”)?

    And why can’t we just decide to come up with an ungendered, singular pronoun? Or, hell, just adopt “Ta” from the Chinese.

    Give a person gendered, singular pronouns and he or she will be making either ugly or grammatically incorrect sentences for the rest of his or her life.

    Teach a person to adopt an ungendered, singular pronoun, and ta will write clear, simple prose for the rest of ta’s life.

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