Call Them What They Wants
English speakers must simply accept the adoption of the singular they as a rejection of the gender binary, John McWhorter argued recently. “Pronouns change, just as we do.”
I admire John McWhorter’s great readiness to embrace changes in language as they happen, and am entertained by his antagonism to pointless grammatical rigors.
English has needed a generic third-person singular pronoun for a long time; they wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it appears to be here to stay, and I prefer having an imperfect solution to having no solution at all.
New York, N.Y.
I was hoping to see this author address the real problem I’ve been running into as I try to use they as a singular pronoun for my nonbinary child: that this is not just a grammar-rules problem; it’s a referential-symbol problem. Even though the author provides examples of how we use they as a singular pronoun, we’ve only ever used they as a singular pronoun when discussing a generic or unknown entity, to avoid saying he or she. Using they as a singular pronoun to actually attempt to refer to my child in regular conversation for the past two months has revealed that people get confused and begin to think I’m talking about both of my children. I wish we had a better gender-neutral solution.
Using they as singular creates more problems than it solves. A much simpler approach would be to institute the use of a “new” singular pronoun. I put “new” in quotation marks not because we have to create a new word, but to emphasize the newness of its acceptance; safe replacements have been proposed since at least the 1800s.
In The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, the authors Casey Miller and Kate Swift catalog a number of proposed alternatives, each with its own charms: co, E (a nice echo of I), hesh (a mash-up of he and she), hir (a similar mash-up, this time of his and her), per (short for person), tey (suspiciously like they—but not), and thon (a compression of that one). An accepted singular pronoun would avoid problems of subject-verb agreement, help avoid pronoun-reference confusion, and be easier for fluent speakers to adopt.
Bowling Green, Ky.
Why not create a new word? The arguments presented here do not account for the fact that this is not simply a linguistic change but rather a change in paradigm regarding gender realities. Perhaps the movement will spur the development of a new dialect in American English. This would be preferable to the current efforts to co-opt the pronoun they, if only to avoid the sheer confusion that will result from the inconsistent use of a singular they.
I find the loss of the singular thou to be actually quite annoying. There are many times the lack of difference between you (singular) and you (plural) creates unnecessary confusion, and it is really an inefficiency in the language.
As an educator and a person who uses they/them pronouns, I am grateful for this article because it effectively uses history and linguistics to argue why people can—and should—put in the effort to incorporate they/them singular pronouns into their vocabulary.
I enjoyed reading John McWhorter’s essay on the current use of the word they as a singular form. I was reminded of the writer and retired journalist Robert MacNeil, who, in the documentary The Story of English, noted that our language is constantly evolving and that change in our use of language often “bubbles up from below.” We have a need to clarify, simplify, or even invent words, phrases, and word meanings out of a basic desire to communicate ideas effectively and efficiently—even if that means using the word they in singular form.
I like that about the English language. It is a living thing that bends and changes to accommodate our needs. The language serves us, yet we must be good stewards and critically assess these changes, as McWhorter has skillfully done with his essay.
John McWhorter replies:
As potentially useful as the introduction of brand-new pronouns to English can seem, there’s a reason that the attempts David LeNoir lists such as co and hesh never worked out. Pronouns, like numbers and the recitation of the alphabet, aren’t just ordinary words. They are too deeply seated in our brains for new ones to truly catch on—or at least, ones introduced suddenly and amidst controversy. Imagine someone, for example, heeding Anthony Chimiak’s thoroughly reasonable desire that English distinguish the singular and the plural in the second person, and proposing that we use a new ending in the second person singular, -el. So, you, my friend, walkel while you all walk. I’d like to know what you thinkel, Ted. No matter how sensible this seems, it would never take off, and that’s what happened to ideas like co, hesh, and thon. Roxanne Russell is onto something in that actually using they for specified persons can be confusing if context allows the possibility of supposing that the reference is to two or more people (and it often does). I personally imagine that he and she could survive when explicitness is desired. For example, Mandarin Chinese has a special “we” pronoun for when you want to refer specifically to yourself and the person you’re talking to, as opposed to yourself, that person, and other people, or yourself and other people.