Everyone can decide for themselves.

No, really. Everyone can make their own decisions about the singular “they.” (I happen to know that Ray and I are on opposite sides of this particular issue. I’m posting about it only because someone I’ve known longer than I’ve known Ray posted about it over on my Facebook wall about a half-hour ago, and in the process of responding to her, I relocated the two wonderful blog entries that helped me face my fear of “singular they” and move past it.)

You may or may not realize that being up in arms over “singular they” while remaining placid about “singular you” could be called hypocritical by some. (Not by me, but by some who are even more rabidly grammar-nerdly than I. There are such people. Oh, yes, there are.) I point this out as a matter of concern for my readers’ relative safety while roaming the Internet.

Once upon a time, long long ago (but not in a galaxy far far away), “ye” (now “you”) was the plural second-person pronoun, and “thou” (now mostly extinct except in historical and fantasy writing) was the second-person singular. Over time, the latter fell into disuse and the former became the acceptable catch-all second-person singular and plural pronoun. And that, my readers, is how we wound up needing phrases like “all of you” and dialectical constructs like “you’uns” and “all y’all” (because “y’all” is singular, you know?). Pitching a fit over a singular they, but accepting singular you without question, causes some people to react very badly indeed. Of course we’re still in the very midst of the shift for the singular they, while most of us were raised with the singular you (unless we lived in Yorkshire in the 1940′s, for example, when “tha” was the dialectical form of “thou” used in everyday speech).

And so, here are the links I mentioned at the start of this ramble. I hope that if nothing else you will find them entertaining. (I can also hope that some of you might decide that the singular they makes sense, just like the singular you does.)

http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2011/12/16/pronoun-agreement-out-the-window/

http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/01/05/dogma-and-evidence/

I want to address one more point, because I can hear the thought rumbling around out there in the ether. While I have come to accept the usefulness of singular they when the gender of the antecedent cannot be known and I want to avoid the wordiness of “his or hers” or “himself or herself” or what-have-you, when I am copy editing this is an issue I discuss with the author. If said author is apoplectic at the concept of the singular they, I will do my best to recast sentences to not need gender specificity. If said author is receptive to the concept, happiness ensues. It’s all part of my job, ensuring that the author’s voice is clear even after I’ve fixed all the problems. This isn’t really a problem. It’s a choice–one that everyone can make for themselves.

 

2 thoughts on “Everyone can decide for themselves.

  1. Absolute agreement, and great links. (One that I also like is here: http://www.editorscanberra.org/a-singular-use-of-they/). I admit to once being a person who looked down on the singular they, but I’ve since embraced it wholeheartedly. My take on it is that for better or worse, the rules of supply and demand affect language like they do everything else. English (especially in this day when “he” is thankfully no longer argued as being acceptable usage when talking about a person of unknown sex) has a demand for a singular neutral pronoun; “they” meets that demand quite nicely.

    I do totally agree that whatever individual writers/style guides want to do is fine, though, and I would likewise never arbitrarily use singular “they” if I wasn’t certain that it was all right to do so. Editing for Wizards of the Coast, I confess that I actually like the old v3.x style of alternating “he” and “she” paragraph by paragraph when talking about characters in a generic sense. For 4th Edition, the style guide dictates “he or she” across the board, so I do a lot of recasting to avoid the clunkiness that results when that phrase starts to repeat.

    • Thank you, Scott. I never cared for the alternating he/she, personally, finding it only slightly less obtrusive and annoying than “he or she.” I find myself appreciating your “supply and demand” explanation.

      Great link, too!

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