Yet even so, we all master it, and teach ourselves not to use I and me in the wrong ways in public contexts. And certainly, a society will have its formalities that must be attended to whether we like it or not. I observe the rule as much as possible when speaking publicly. I am not claiming that we should not teach children this rule (although I will be teaching mine how arbitrary it is). However, it’s no accident that so many people merely internalize not the rule itself, but that somehow I is more proper across the board, which yields the famous between you and I, in which the subject form is used where an object one is stipulated by our English-is-Latin rule.
I have no hope of divesting modern Anglophone societies of the “Billy and I” rule, given how irritating many find observations such as those I’ve made above. However, most of us will agree on this: Mastering that rule requires a certain effort, self-training, a nudging of ourselves beyond what would have come out on its own (at least at an earlier stage of our lives). If we have no problem exerting the effort to observe this rule, why not exert a little more to master a new way of using they? We observe the “Billy and I” rule out of a sense of manners, poise, or even class marking. Is not being solicitous an equally compelling reason—or, some might say, a more compelling one—to learn a new manner of expression?
Quite a few younger people, after all, are already using the new they with effortless fluency, mastering it along with the “Billy and I” rule. It might not occur to a new speaker of English, but they internalize this form in order to operate in the world as we know it—or as it is changing. I, for one, am not ready to say that the young harbor an energy and flexibility that I have become too set in my ways to match.
“But this new usage of they is just incorrect!” some will understandably object. “Billy and I” feels correct because it's rooted in classical ideas of subject and object. Singular they, in contrast, can seem just wrong.
However, just as words’ meanings are always changing—what Shakespeare meant by generous was “noble,” not “magnanimous”—pronouns never sit still. What kind of sense does it make that in Italian, lei means both she and the polite you? Isn’t it even more senseless that in German, sie (or Sie) means she, polite you, and they? Or what kind of sense does it make that in English, we use you in both the singular and the plural? Nothing feels more natural today, but in earlier English, thou was the second-person-singular form, and you was used only for two or more people.
The change from then to now hardly happened overnight, and as you might imagine, there were people at the transition who were just as itchy about the new you as some are today about the new they. George Fox had it this way:
Is he not a Novice and unmannerly, and an Ideot and a Fool, that speaks You to one, which is not to be spoken to a Singular, but to many? O Vulgar Professors and teachers, that speak Plural, when they should Singular …. Come you Priests and Professors, have you not learnt your Accidence?
And yet, here we are. Fox’s objections look as quaint as the quill and feather he wrote with, and we seem to be doing just fine with just one you, even dismissing those seeking to tidy things up by creating new plural yous—y'all, youse, yins—as yokels. Objections to the new they will look precisely as creaky and quizzical in the future—and, I suspect, far sooner than the 350 years that separate us from Fox.