That’s Just What They Would Say

The announcement we wait for every year has finally come in, and the American Dialect society has chosen their Word of the Year! That word is: “they”. It beat out other finalists such as “ammosexual.”

You might think that dubbing “they” as the Word of the Year is some sort of lifetime-achievement award, since the plucky pronoun has been part of English for quite a long time. But the prize has been given, not for the word itself, but for a particular usage that has been gaining ground for a while now: the singular “they.” We most commonly use the word to stand for the plural: “Jack and Jill went up the hill, but once there they realized they had forgotten their pail.” More and more, however, we’re seeing it used to denote one person at a time, when their sex is unknown to us: “The robber left no fingerprints, but they did leave a note to taunt the police.”

It would be somewhat more traditional, in some circumstances, to say “he or she did leave a note.” It’s a bit cumbersome, however, and to be honest, the real tradition is simply to act like women don’t exist, and say “he did leave a note.” The rise of “he or she” has reflected our gradual progress in remembering that human beings come in both male and female varieties, and our language should reflect that. (We can also try to make it reflect the full diversity of sex and gender roles, but while that’s an admirable goal, it might not be realistic in practice.)

Using “they” instead of “he or she” or just “he” is a very nice compromise. It sounds good, and it’s a word we’re already familiar with. Die-hard prescriptivists will complain that it’s simply a mistake, because when the God of English wrote the rules for our language, He (presumably) declared that “they” is only and always supposed to be plural. That view doesn’t accord with common sense, nor with the reality of the history of English. A long list of the best writers in the language, from Shakespeare and the authors of the King James Bible to Jane Austen and George Orwell, have deployed “they” as the correct pronoun to use when describing a single person whose sex is not known to us. Supporters of singular “they” are not revolutionaries twisting our language to the diabolical purposes of modern political correctness; we are just recalling a well-established and more correct way of speaking.

It’s long been argued that “he” served perfectly well as a generic singular pronoun, without any implication at all that the person being referred to is actually male. The problem with that view is that it is false. Studies have consistently shown that referring to unknown persons as “he” makes listeners envision a man much more often than a woman. To which one can scientifically reply, no duh. Pretending that “he” refers equally to men and women is just another strategy for pretending that sexism doesn’t exist — a tradition much more venerable than using “he” as a generic pronoun.

Minor fixes in our use of language aren’t going to make sexism go away. But they are steps in the right direction. I like to hope that, when the next young genius appears to revolutionize science, they will have had to deal with just a little bit less discrimination than their predecessors did.

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45 Responses to That’s Just What They Would Say

  1. As you used the word “prescriptivists” I am guessing that you have read David Foster Wallace’s review of Garner’s “Authority and American Usage”.

  2. Manny Rayner says:

    I hope this award raises the profile of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to tell academic coauthors whose first language isn’t English that in fact it’s correct usage. They always look extremely skeptical.

  3. edmeasure says:

    Manny Rayner,

    So should I conclude that you are usually in the position of explaining this point to multiple academic co-authors, or rather that the plural will replace the singular in all usages?

  4. JScarry says:

    It’s also useful when you know the gender of the person, but you don’t necessarily want to reveal it. e.g “I went to the mall with my friend. They bought a jacket.”

    I like it because it makes your text flow better. I’ve been using it in instruction manuals since our first one in 1994. e.g. “The client will listen to the word as it is pronounced and try to replicate the sound. …They may click on the Say Sounds button to hear the sounds in the word.”

    The meaning is clear and most people never notice that you are not using he, or he/she, or she, or he or she. And it’s a whole lot better for flow than zie.

  5. vmarko says:

    It’s a good thing that American-English has finally adopted/reinvented what most of other languages always had, basically (like German for example, and even proper English, if you read Shakespeare&co…).

    Or is it maybe to annoy the French, who do not even have the concept of neutral gender in their language? 🙂

    Best, 🙂

  6. Shecky R says:

    I find it all a bit interesting because I was a pretty good student of English long ago and yet never knew there was any ‘rule’ that “they” was meant to be only plural.
    But enough nitpicking over language… sexism, violence, and pseudoscience permeate Hollywood movies, including the Star Wars/Star Trek genre (as well as TV & comics), and little is done about it.

  7. Daniel Weissman says:

    When people object to this usage, I say something like “Thou art entirely correct!”

  8. Ela says:

    Why not “it” instead of “they”?

  9. Brent Meeker says:

    When I headed an engineering organization I had a sign above my desk that read, “There is no THEY.”

  10. human says:

    clever use of “their” as singular right at the end there, sean. well played.

  11. Lord says:

    Criminally, he would be much more common. Perhaps they is number neutral as well as presumably no one saw ‘them’.

  12. Jason Andersen says:

    It’s sad that it has come to this level parsing of “he or she” in correspondence. It’s just more PC the seems to have permeated our society.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson says:

    Thanks, I was not cognizant of that use!

    FWIW, here in Sweden we saw the introduction of a compromise not too long ago. (Typical for Sweden!)

    E.g. “hen”, where undecided “han eller hon” (he or she) became tedious. I guess the pattern was to “pick the next vocal”.

  14. Sandra Wilde says:

    The usage of “they” that you describe has been acceptable and used by most people in oral language for some time, now, though often edited in writing. But the Dialect Society specifically voted on it for its use as a preferred pronoun for some transgender people, particularly those who identify as genderqueer or non-binary. E.g., “Pat may wear dresses, but they don’t identify as a woman.”

    IMO, it’s best to not use pronouns at all for God, since it narrows the concept/meaning. E.g, “God gave God’s only child . . .”

  15. Skip says:

    Your criticism of the use of “he” to refer to someone of unknown sex is itself disturbingly prescriptivist. Sure, there is plenty of precedent for using the singular “they.” But there is much more precedent for using the generic “he.” Why can’t we just let the language evolve organically without trying to impose yet more rules, all while pretending to be enlightened descriptivists?

  16. Daniel SB says:

    You seem to have missed the primary reason “they” has been named Word of the Year – for its growing use as a pronoun for gender neutral people. From the American Dialect Society, “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

  17. Humanoid says:

    When tasting all the multitude of cheeses,
    a humanoid can taste exactly
    as they pleases.

  18. They Might Be Gerunds says:

    Singular they, singular they
    Word of the year, of the day
    What’s their gender? It’s not important
    Singular they
    Prescriptivist they, prescriptivist they
    Prescriptivist they hates singular they
    Then the rules changed, and now they’re okay
    Prescriptivist they

  19. Shivnarayan Dhuppar says:

    Love you, professor, it’s just fantastic!

  20. Using “they” instead of “he or she” or just “he” is a very nice compromise.

    Sometimes this is the best choice, but most of the time it is just ugly, floppy and maybe a bit ambiguious. I use “she” by preference, and sometimes “he”.

  21. Bee says:

    Peripherally related, the Germans yesterday announced the 2015 “Unwort” (it means what you think it means: “un-word”), which came out to be “Gutmensch” (it also means what you think it means: “Good mensch”). It’s used to refer to someone who is supposedly naively doing “good” without considering consequences and it’s recently been used to insult those supportive of accepting more refugees.

    I like the use of they for he/she. It goes nicely and doesn’t sound awkward, probably because it’s an existing word. The Swedes should learn something from it. I doubt their newly invented article is going to make it into wide use because it just sounds foreign and awkward.

  22. Kasuha says:

    The only thing I don’t like on it is that it introduces confusion about whether the sentence is about single person or more people. Maybe a slightly different word could be used instead. For some reason I like idea of abusing ancient thee/thy/thine for the purpose (serious about abusing since it’s mixing them up relative to their original meaning):

    “That’s just what they would say” (plural) vs “That’s just what thee would say” (singular)

    “The letter was addressed to them” (plural) vs “the letter was addressed to thy” (singular)

    “Picked up their kids” (plural) vs “picked up thine kids” (singular)

  23. brody facoum says:

    The God of the English (there is an established Church of England after all) is the Holy Trinity, and strangely is nevertheless almost never called “they”.

  24. Barry says:

    As Dirty Harry, gender revised, might have put ,” Go ahead make my they.”

  25. Justin Case says:

    It’s arguments like this that make death welcome!