Yesterday, the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee to answer questions on the whistle-blower complaint about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. There was one matter that no one seemed to be able to agree on: What pronoun should be used to refer to the unnamed whistle-blower?
When the committee chairman, Adam Schiff, asked Maguire if he thought that the whistle-blower was “a political hack” as Trump had suggested, Maguire responded, “I don’t know who the whistle-blower is, Mr. Chairman, to be honest with you. I’ve done my utmost to protect his anonymity.” But if Maguire was seeking to protect the whistle-blower’s anonymity, why use the pronoun he to identify the person’s gender?
Schiff, in his questioning, was more circumspect, avoiding gendered references by relying on a time-honored strategy: deploying they as a singular pronoun. When Maguire said he thought the whistle-blower was “operating in good faith,” Schiff said, “Then they couldn’t be in good faith if they were acting as a political hack, could they? … You don’t have any reason to accuse them of disloyalty to our country or suggest they’re beholden to some other country, do you?”
When Maguire again referred to the whistle-blower as he—“I think he followed the law every step of the way”—Schiff took another gender-neutral approach, using he or she: “Then why, Director, when the president called the whistle-blower a political hack and suggested that he or she might be disloyal to the country, why did you remain silent?”
Trump, for his part, was also dancing around the pronoun issue on Thursday morning. At a private event with American diplomatic officials in New York, Trump lashed out at the whistle-blower, saying, “He or she or whoever the hell they saw—they’re almost a spy.”
For as long as the whistle-blower’s gender remained unknown, the singular they was the most convenient pronoun to use—not just for Schiff and Trump, but also for news outlets reporting on the story. “Whistleblower Tentatively Agrees to Testify, Attorneys Say, as Long as They Get Appropriate Clearances to Attend Hearing,” read one CNN headline; the article made clear that it was the whistle-blower, not the attorneys, who needed the clearances.
On Thursday afternoon, however, The New York Times published the news that the whistle-blower was a man, and further identified him as a CIA officer previously detailed to work at the White House. (After which the Times national-security editor, Amy Fiscus, tweeted, “And yes, it’s a he.”) The Wall Street Journal soon followed up with its own reporting identifying the whistle-blower as a man.
Despite these reports, not everyone was eager to identify the whistle-blower as “he.” When Schiff appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show on Thursday night, he criticized Republicans who argued that “this whistle-blower wasn’t even listening to the call himself or herself, so they’re not credible,” adding, “Well, actually, their allegations are more credible because their sources are so good.”
In an ever shifting political story centering on a person whose exact identity has remained concealed (at least for now), the singular they has proved to be the best option for a pronoun that avoids gender reference. While the more cumbersome he or she has occasionally crept in, the widespread use of they in the whistle-blower saga goes to show just how accepted—and how necessary—the singular form of that pronoun has become, despite complaints from naysayers that it is somehow ungrammatical.
Construing they as singular is nothing new, though it has been making fresh inroads lately. When there is a generic antecedent such as everyone, not referring to a specific person (as in “Everyone can choose the pronoun they want”), the use of they has been commonplace for centuries, found in the writing of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and countless others. But even when a particular individual is picked out by the pronoun, the singular they has shown itself to be extremely useful. If the singular they came to be more widely embraced as an acceptable grammatical choice, then there would be no need for any verbal gymnastics in cases like the whistle-blower’s, where a person’s gender may be at least temporarily unclear.
The singular they has also been in the news for another significant use case: when it is embraced by those whose gender identity is nonbinary. The singer Sam Smith recently announced on Instagram, “I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM,” in a post that garnered more than half a million likes. Days later, Merriam-Webster made its own announcement: the nonbinary singular usage would be added to the dictionary’s entry for they.
While this news has occasioned hand-wringing from those who continue to view the singular they as incorrect, the tide does seem to be turning on the matter, in large part thanks to growing acceptance of gender identities that transcend the typical binary of he and she. For these reasons, the American Dialect Society selected the singular they as its Word of the Year for 2015. (As the chair of the society’s New Words Committee, I oversaw the selection process.) Since then, the singular they has been further mainstreamed, though the path to acceptance has not been entirely smooth.
Dennis Baron, an English professor at the University of Illinois, has been documenting the growing use of the singular they as well as the pitfalls along the way. He notes that even when news organizations such as the Associated Press explicitly allow for the singular they in their style guides, journalists and editors have been far from consistent in applying the pronoun. As Baron observed on his blog, the AP botched the reporting on Sam Smith, first by misgendering them as he/him, and then revising the article after a social-media uproar.
In the case of the whistle-blower, Baron took to Twitter to critique Thursday’s New York Times article and its gender reveal. He noted that when the paper published an anonymous op-ed last year written by an unnamed senior official resisting the Trump administration from within, the paper was careful to conceal the official’s gender identity, relying on the singular they. “It was clear early on that the writer wanted anonymity, but we didn’t grant anything until we read it and we were confident that they were who they said they were,” the op-ed editor, James Dao, said. Why not do the same with the whistle-blower? (When I asked Amy Fiscus why the Times opted to reveal the whistle-blower’s gender, she declined to talk about the newspaper’s internal decision making, but said: “I do share your desire for a third-person singular they.”)
Baron, who has a forthcoming book titled What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She, shared with me a number of historical examples when the singular they has been strategically used to conceal a person’s gender, going back to the 18th century. It’s a tactic that has even appeared in fiction. In an 1861 installment of Emma D. E. N. Southworth’s serialized novel Allworth Abbey, or Eudora, for example, a character defends her use of the singular they by saying, “Mamma, when we speak of anyone in the third person without wishing even to divulge their sex, we say ‘they,’ because we have no third person singular of the common gender.” More than a century and a half later, some of us are still struggling with the concept.