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. “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.”

    Swedish for “he” is “han”, Swedish for “she” is “hon”. Although spelled differently, these are easy for Germans to remember since they are pronounced exactly like the German words “Hahn” and “Huhn”, which refer to male and female chickens, respectively. The new Swedish word is “hen”, not only for when the gender is unclear to the speaker but also to be more inclusive of the LGBTPQWERTY community.

    There are bigger problems in Sweden, though, where saunas are usually with nudity required but separated by gender—men and women in the old days. I recently read where there were now a dozen or so categories. Since there aren’t usually that many separate saunas at the same place, it was done as is often in the case of small hotels, via separate times. Obviously a bummer if you don’t have time when your group is allowed.

    This is better in Germany, where usually saunas (also nudity required) are not segregated, so there is no reason to cater to specific groups since they are open to all anyway. “Separate but equal” has never satisfactorily worked anywhere.

  2. The new Swedish word is “hen”,

    Of course, this is the English word for a female chicken.

  3. marten says:

    I hope that they are themselves.

  4. Polonius says:

    Daniel Weissman is right. The plural “you” seems to have displaced the singular “thou/thee” without leading to the end of civilisation as we know it. I see no reason why “they” shouldn’t be equally successful.

  5. Richard J. Gaylord says:

    the use of they as a gender-neutral singular is an excellent choice (note: its curious to see the prevalence of the use of ‘she’ that is common in economics literature for what i presume to be politically correctness). as runner-up for word of the year might be the use of the impersonal ‘we’ in single-authored scientific articles (not to forget its use as the ‘royal’ we used by the queen).

  6. vmarko says:

    The impersonal “we” in single-authored scientific articles means “we, the author and the reader together”, just like in multi-authored articles and science textbooks. Phrases like “let us study this equation…” or “from this we obtain the following result…” are the written version of somebody giving an oral lecture to the audience, like in front of a blackboard. The “we” comes from the fact that everybody present at the lecture is participating in it (one person more actively, the others more passively, but still…). So there is noting unusual in using “we” in a single-authored paper — the expression still refers to at least two people — the author and the reader.

    Best, 🙂

  7. Mike Bendzela says:

    Hooray! I start my spring semester next week. I’m going to walk into my writing class strewing confetti.

    “Thou art permitted to say ‘they’ for ‘he,’ for ‘she,’ for ‘they.’ Hooray!”

  8. Ignatius Gerumpany says:

    I understand the utility of this usage change, which really is a fact of current usage more than a prescription. Careful writers writing carefully find ways to avoid expressions that stop the reader’s mind. However, much writing does not require carefulness. Also, a day will almost certainly come when calculating the number and antecedent of “they” will not stop anybody’s mind. Such is the relentless democracy of language usage. Dictionaries, necessarily, trail behind, straightening the furniture as best they can. (Fellow geezers, insert the Serenity Prayer here.)

  9. George Davis says:

    I appreciate the need for making the language less sexist, but the singular they sounds horrible to me (and I think of myself as a descriptivist). And I keep thinking a phrase with a singular they ought to take the form of “they is,” which it never does.

    As a descriptivist, I go with it, but I try to find clever ways to write my way around the cumbersomeness of “he/she” because I can’t bring myself to use the singular they.

  10. Polonius says:

    George Davis,

    Do you think a phrase with the singular “you” should take the form “you is”? The use of “you are” in the singular seems utterly unremarkable nowadays, and it may be only a matter of time before the singular “they” is assimilated.

    But do we now need to coin a new word: “themself”?

  11. Elbi says:

    Thanks for reminding me of your “Ze is zir own perzon” post. I thought I’d never stop laughing, especially when it dawned on me that you weren’t joking! God….

  12. Malky says:

    I don’t understand why there is such a fuss about this – the singular they has been part of English (particulalrly in Northern Dialects) for ages. I wouldmn’t think twice about using and probably wouldn’t even notice that I had unless it waspinted out.

  13. arch1 says:

    Skip, I’d be interested in your take on, an editorial written in the context of an alternate reality whose English is racist in the same way that *our* English is sexist. The author, an apologist for the alternate-reality status quo, waxes eloquent about how everyone *knows* that words such as ‘chairwhite’ have imply nothing as to race, and time-honored expressions such as ‘no white is an island’ are neither intended, nor interpreted, to exclude non-whites.

    As the ostensibly innocuous usages piled up (clergywhite, dog is white’s best friend, Frenchwhite, oneupwhiteship – and I can’t resist adding “white-hour” and “white-month”, as if only whites did productive work), I found it increasingly difficult to believe that they did no real harm to (for example) non-white children. The implications for *our* reality were pretty clear.

  14. Ian says:

    Sapirism, by any other name, is equally stupid.

  15. arch1 says:

    Skip, would you similarly be advocating for the status quo if our language were racist instead of sexist, pervaded with words, phrases and sayings such as white-months, “white-eating shark,” “white is the measure of all things,” “white of the year,” chairwhite, and so on? (The concept here, though not most of the examples, are from a Douglas Hofstadter essay titled “A Person Paper on Purity in Language.”)

    If not, why are you ok w/ sexist English, but not racist English?

  16. Shecky R says:

    Well, as long as we’re making such changes we ought stop using words like “steak,” “bacon,” “ribs,” “filet mignon,” “sausage,” etc. in reference to dead farm cows, pigs, etc. — euphemisms only intended to remove us emotionally as far as possible from the reality/cruelty of their mistreatment and slaughter.

  17. Haruki Chou says:

    Many use “yo” instead of he or she or the singular “they”.
    I prefer “yo” to “they”, since “they” already has a plural meaning.
    But neither of these has gained general acceptance.
    Sadly such a sex-neutral word is sorely needed in English.
    Why should the sex always be specified by using “he” or “she”?
    Using “he” or “she” as pronouns to automatically specify male or female makes no more sense than using “hedem” or “herep” as pronouns to automatically specify democrat or republican.

  18. Haruki Chou says:

    “human beings come in both male and female varieties, and our language should reflect that”
    – in US, “human beings come in both democrat and republican varieties, should our language reflect that”?

  19. “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.”

    Yes and no. Old English had 3 genders, and professions (butcher, baker, candlestick maker) were usually assigned male gender. That makes sense in a society when the holders of those professions would’ve mostly been men. So saying “he left a note” when referring to a robber is a leftover from when English had genders.

    That’s not to say that we can’t progress, of course.

  20. AJ Hill says:

    While not (willingly) a prescriptivist, I do feel that changes in the language aren’t all equal.
    I like changes that amplify meaning and utility; but not all of them do. Consider the sentence,
    “Everyone knows what they like.” In spite of my desire to accept the inevitable, this kind of statement clangs against my sensibilities. “Everyone” is explicitly singular and I’m unable to avoid a momentary stutter step of incomprehension. Is this actually a reflexive statement about an individual or does it mean what it actually says?
    For my part, I’d much prefer to learn an alternative variant invented to solve the problem. “Hem”, for example, doesn’t sound bad for a gender-non-specific objective pronoun. Combining “he” and “she” to act as a subject may be more problematical, but I’m open to suggestions.