Can I admit something to y’all? I have a history of indulging in grammar Nazism. Nowadays I try to hold myself to the understanding that language is constantly evolving and that the definitions of words are beholden to how we choose to use them, but it can be hard. When young Americans took their hyperbolic use of the word “literally” too far, I grabbed a pitchfork and marched with the sensationalist mob. When “selfie” squeezed its way into the cultural lexicon, I rallied against it. When the City of Minneapolis decided to remove the name of a racist, South Carolinian slave owner from a lake he had never visited, I somehow found something to complain about. And the first time I heard about the gender-neutral, singular “they”, I hated it.
This topic came back to me courtesy of a New York Times op-ed by John McWhorter, wherein McWhorter makes the case for “they” as a valuable singular pronoun. I’d since come around on the issue, but I learned the space I’d formerly occupied hadn’t gone unused when the letters to the editor started rolling in. About five deep, I started noticing a pattern: a lot of educated, well-meaning liberal folks felt the exact way I did not too long ago: they hated “they”.
It’s not hard to make a case against the singular “they”. For one thing, it’s new*, and new words are bad by virtue of not having stood the arduous test of time. I expect all entry-level words to come with two decades’ experience. But more than that, “they” is confusing, because it’s traditionally a plural pronoun denoting a group of two or more people. When we see “they” our brains are signaled to re-read and search for the second individual. What “they” are we talking about here? For minds accustomed to this traditional usage of the word, it requires cognitive effort to understand the writer’s intent.
The letter writers make this point time and time again, and not long ago, I stood proudly beside them. Like them, I had no intention of disparaging those who use or promote the use of gender-neutral pronouns — I was (and am) all for it! — but this wasn’t the way, especially when there were so many better routes to dealing with the issue.
Other languages have words for the singular “they”, but in English, this is essentially new ground. Proponents of “they” will point out that it’s been in use for hundreds of years, but that use is inconsistent and far from widespread. It’s only recently that more people have acknowledged the need for a new pronoun and brought prominence to this old beast. On the other side, opponents have pointed out that it’s just as easy to manufacture a new word. In the letters to the editor, several helpful people make suggestions. Simon suggests “que”, “re”, or “xe”. Richard puts his strength behind “s/he” or “herm”. They’re among the only ones kind enough to put forth suggestions. The rest of the nay-sayers voice their displeasure without offering up solutions.
Let me get it out of the way that I have a bone to pick with some of these: Simon says “que” is pronounced “kwee”, but I don’t know about that. “Re” belongs in a string of twenty at the beginning of 1990s chain emails, and “herm” is the sound a sexually-active Minecraft villager makes. Everyone knows that. But sure, there are some good alternatives to the singular “they”. And I agree with you, I think I’d prefer one of them. A new, baggage-less word is much clearer than an ancient and mutated one.
But English changes by consensus, not by demand. Unlike regulated languages, such as French and German, English has no commanding central authority. We make our own rules. So if we’re gonna pick a new, easy-to-use pronoun, which one is it? Both of these guys picked two or three. The suggestions are potentially infinite, and very few have significant support. I mean, one does have a competitive lead. It’s “they”.
Where those opting for a new pronoun are fractured and locked in conflict, the “they” voters present as a united front. Their word is, by several leagues, the frontrunner.
That doesn’t make it the winner. Much like English isn’t under the command of a central committee, new words can’t be hammered into place with a weak plurality like American presidents by the Electoral College. If you don’t want to adopt “they”, you don’t have to. You can still fight for a different word — I might even cheer you on. But while academic conversations about the merits of one term over another can have enough fuel to go on for forever, we as people don’t have quite as much time. Even if our decision is far from final, there’s value in tagging along with the majority for the time being. The arguments presented by my fellow defenders of grammar remind me of why I spent so long as a holdout on the “they” front; the points they make still ring logical in my head. But one of the first letters in the column brought me back to where I am now, reminding me of why I changed my mind:
“When I saw this article, I tensed up, ready for a fight. My sibling and I are both transgender. Then I kept reading. John McWhorter’s article felt like home. I wanted to grab my sibling and all of the wonderful queer people I love and say, Maybe we are OK. Maybe we can be OK.
We went through years of school being taught that queerness does not belong in public education. I have never read anything like Mr. McWhorter’s article. The idea that conversations around pronouns can be more than whether or not gender-neutral pronouns are legitimate feels thrilling. Thank you, Mr. McWhorter. Thank you so much.”Adam
The writer here isn’t an academic, like some contributors, or a grammar purist, like me. They’re a 14-year-old high school student. And while the irking I dealt with on this topic existed wholly in the realm of semantic hypotheticals, their experience with the hemming-and-hawing attitude of my peers is daily and real. This is something those of us on the political left struggle with: we spend so much time arguing amongst ourselves about the most effective plan of action that we forget there’s another front of people out there taking a more harmful angle. High school kids like Adam and their sibling aren’t trying to find the best word, they’re looking for one word, knowing entirely that even when they get it, they’ll be surrounded by those who want to take it from them. We’ve trudged so deep into this tar pit of deciding what word to use that we forget about the battalions of those offended by the idea that such a word would exist at all.
I used to view the “they” proponents as a well-meaning but misguided bunch. I’ve turned around. I now choose to see them as a heterogeneous collection of people who have identified a current problem and decided to deal with it head on, instead of sitting back and waiting for the best solution to develop naturally. Their answer isn’t perfect, but it is practical. If you think you’ve got a better one, I’m all ears, but until you’re willing to put in the effort to cultivate and defend that idea to the masses, I’m with (they/)them.