Call Them What They Wants

As more English speakers adopt the singular they and reject the gender binary, resisters will have to accept that language changes over time.

A slab found in Greece, dated to the Roman period, is inscribed with verses from the Odyssey.
A slab found in Greece, dated to the Roman period, is inscribed with verses from the Odyssey. (AP)

It is certainly the most challenging change in language I have dealt with in my lifetime. Ever more people, rejecting the gender binary, are requesting to be referred to as they rather than as he or she. That is, we now say: Ariella isn't wearing the green one. They think it's time to wear their other one. I expect to get some new practice using they this way as school starts back up, with more students at universities such as the one where I teach requesting they.

Yes, practice—I am trying my best to master this new way of using they despite the fact that, make no mistake, it's hard. In contrast to the deliberateness of writing, speaking casually is a largely subconscious, not to mention very rapid, act. In addition, pronouns, like conjunctions and suffixes, are a very deeply seated feature of language, generated from way down deep in our minds, linked to something as fundamental to human conception as selfhood in relation to the other and others. I've been using they in one way since the late 1960s, and was hardly expecting to have to learn a new way of using it decades later. I thought I had English pretty much under my belt.

Some might find this an odd orientation from a linguist. After all, aren't we libertine, permissive sorts, wedded to the unheedful idea that people should be able to just let it all hang out linguistically? If so, I might be expected to harrumph that people should not be asked to use language in ways that they find unnatural.

But all of us use certain corners of the language in distinctly unnatural ways all the time, and for reasons less coherent, in the grand view, than those justifying the new use of they. Social justice has a way of feeling, at least to some, unnatural—at least at first. That doesn't mean it isn't social justice.

Quite a few of us, in fact, harbor a distinctly unnatural resistance to a related usage of they, which was until recently the one for which it usually made news. Tell each student they can hand in their paper at the front office. We are told that this sentence is incorrect because they can only refer to the plural. The proper user of English is to either use he to refer to both genders, to toggle self-consciously between he and she, or, in writing, to use little (and unpronounceable) monstrosities like he/she.

Adjusting ourselves to the supposed naturalness of these backdoor fixes, we tend to miss that English speakers have been using they in the singular since English was anything we'd recognize as English. Back in Middle English, the Sir Amadace tale includes, “Each man in their degree.” The Bard has Antipholus of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors chirp, “There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend.” Thackeray has Rosalind toss off in Vanity Fair, “A person can't help their birth.” Whence the idea that all of these people were butchering the language?

It was the schoolteacher and writer Anne Fisher whose English primer of 1745 began the notion that it's somehow bad to use they in the plural and that he stands for both men and women. Grammarians of Fisher's day tended to believe that real languages should pattern themselves after Latin and ancient Greek, in which the words for they happened not to have experienced such developments.

But grammarians then knew less about how much language varies worldwide, and also operated under a quaint sense that the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome were inherently superior to the European ones that emerged later. The simple fact is that they in English has always operated differently from they in Latin, and trying to narrow the gap between the two makes no more sense than deciding that English's definite articles need to operate like the ones in Arabic or Hebrew.

As such, the objection “They is plural,” as if cast in stone on a Roman edifice, doesn't go through unless Anne Fisher is granted some godly status, which few would be inclined to do despite her tart brilliance. Nevertheless, if the past is any guide, many will insist on making the effort not to use the relatively novel form of the singular they—at least in print, and maybe even in speech—despite how naturally other uses of the singular they tend to fall out of our mouths, just as they fell out of the mouths of medievals, Elizabethans, and Victorians. We are no strangers to using they in ways that require a bit of forethought and practice—so why not one more?

But suppose you aren't one of those who insists on blocking out the singular they? You might object: “But I do speak as naturally as possible, and so why should I master this new they just because people ask me to?” My answer here is: How do you feel about saying Billy and me went to the store? Or: Tom and him like making mud pies?

Of course, the idea that I must be used as a subject and me as an object is beaten into us so soundly from an early age that most of us barely feel like we’re working to observe this rule. But it is yet another vestige of the notion that English is supposed to operate like Latin and Greek, this time in terms of how subject and object are expressed.

One problem is that languages differ massively in how they sort out subjects and objects, and we don’t have to go far afield to see ones that operate like English. In French, Billy and me (whoops, I) went to the store is certainly not Guillaume et je sommes allées au magasin. Rather, one uses moi, for me: Guillaume et moi sommes allées au magasin. Yet the French operate under no inferiority complex about their language. Why, then, is it wrong in English to say Billy and me went to the store?

After all, there are plenty of ways we use me (or him, her, us, or them) as subjects all the time, with no one batting an eye. “Who broke the lamp?” someone asks. “Me,” you say guiltily—and not “I,” unless you want to sound flabbergastingly pretentious. Yet you wouldn't say “Me broke the lamp”—which suggests that English’s rules about subjects and objects are simply different from Latin's. Is it that the me is short for It was me? But why exactly do you shave off two words just in that sentence?

And if you dig down deep into your mind thinking about when you say me in a context like this—pondering late, late at night when you’re all alone, rain spattering on the windowpanes—you’ll likely admit: You mean the me as a subject. You mean Me did it. And it leaves you no less valid a human being! It’s just that English isn't Latin. It’s more like French.

And never mind that a sentence like I and Billy went to the store sounds like someone from another planet. If I has to be the subject, why does it sound so god-awful in a sentence like that? English’s actual rule for I and me is actually pretty simple: When the subject comes right before a verb you use I; otherwise the form is me even if it’s a subject. (One wrinkle is that you can jam, say, an adverb between the I and the verb—“I, actually, prefer peach Jello, not boring old lime.”) This is what one picks up from hearing English in use as a toddler (including people saying Me rather than I in response to being asked who did something).

For all one might say about whether English’s actual rule is logical, the fact is that this rule must be consciously learned by all but a very few. Somehow, by about the age of 6, we all master the subtleties of how to use the versus a; what the difference is between I turn 31 tomorrow, I’m going to turn 31 tomorrow, and I’ll turn 31 tomorrow; and much, much more—but have to be bopped on the head about Billy and me went to the store.

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.

Of late I have been in situations where I tried to use they in this new way and stumbled all over my linguistic shoelaces. But I picked myself up and brushed myself off, and I’ll be starting all over again. Over the past 10 years, as conceptions of gender have evolved in Anglophone societies, resistance has faded gradually to the old-new they, as in “Tell each student that they can.” I hope the new-new they will not require decades, or even centuries, of the same kind of bilious battle.

If English had not changed in exactly these kinds of ways forever, we'd all be speaking the language of Beowulf. Some might wish it so, but count me out. Pronouns change, just as we do. We celebrate language change that has already happened as pageant, procession, progress. Why not celebrate it while it's happening?