First, consider the singular they.
It’s long been a common construction, if one upon which pedants look down, as in the sentence, “Tell each student that they can hand in their paper a day late.”
That’s natural for most speakers.
But lately, an effort by individuals to use “they” as their singular gender pronoun rather than he or she has taken off. “That’s different, and that takes effort,” McWhorter said, “if you’ve spent a whole life using ‘they’ in a different way.” He shared his own experience in a face-to-face conversation with an individual who wanted to be referred to with the singular third-person pronoun. While doing his best to comply, he said, he messed up a bunch of times. And he understands why some feel that it is an idiosyncratic, willful imposition.
However, he urged the audience to compare the trouble it takes to get used to that new way of speaking with a different counterintuitive rule most already try to follow.
“There is no child speaking English who naturally says, ‘Billy and I went to the store,’” he said. “They say ‘Billy and me.’” They are corrected by adults, even though, by McWhorter’s lights, “that rule is nonsense.” To purists who invoke the subjective and objective cases as they are used in Latin, he asked, “Who broke the lamp?” Anyone who answers, “I,” he said, sounds like they’re from another planet.
Still, he said, in lots of other cases we’ve all learned to catch ourselves, to use the less natural but formally correct word between “I” and “me,” even if we still often slip up. We could think of sentences like “They will join us for dinner, set one more place” the same way. “I think that we’re up to it,” he said.
Example two concerned “the euphemism treadmill,” the process by which a once not-disrespectful word like cripple takes on a negative connotation and is replaced by handicapped ... which takes on negative connotation and is replaced by disabled ... which is itself in the process of being replaced by differently abled.
When McWhorter was in college, he said, politically correct wasn’t a pejorative. By the time he reached graduate school, people had begun to say, “I’m not PC, but...” distancing themselves from a term that had taken on baggage.
Because of social media, he said, “the euphemism treadmill is going to start going faster, and I think we need to get used to it.” For example, it’s only recently that he noticed the term “woke” being used beyond black Americans in just the way that “politically correct” was used before it was a pejorative. And already, he observed, it is beginning to take on the same baggage as PC once did.
As he sees it, understanding why this happens, and that it will inevitably keep happening to lots of different words, can perhaps ease the perceived burden of keeping up.
Finally, he turned to profanity, an area where, in his estimation, American culture is lagging behind a way that language has already changed for the better.