More thoughts on “singular they”

This time, I have backup from none other than John McWhorter, linguist, author, and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. That backup comes from his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

Early on in Chapter Two (“A Lesson from the Celtic Impact: The ‘Grammatical Errors’ Epidemic Is a Hoax”), he discusses the bias against the usage of “they” to mean “one of an indeterminate gender.” Of course, he points out its appearance as early as the 15th century in the phrase “Iche mon in thayre degree” (each man in their degree) in the Sir Amadace tale. Then he names Shakespeare, of course, and Thackeray, too (“A person can’t help their birth,” from Vanity Fair). And yes, I hear the grumblings and see the head-shakings that “just because the Bard did it doesn’t make it right.” Well . . . I disagree, you see. He did it because it was being done. All over. By many, many people. The 19th-century grammarians and their blind insistence on making English conform to Latin grammar took issue, but that’s because . . . well, they meant well, but didn’t understand much about linguistics back then.

That’s another blog post, though.

The next paragraph from McWhorter discusses the role of copy editors in the struggle surrounding (notice, I didn’t say “against” or “for”) the singular they. He explains that linguists who write books are at the mercy of their copy editors, and are often forced into sexist language (using only “he”) or clumsy language (using “he or she/she or he”) or obviously duty-bound insertions (mostly “he” with the occasional “she” so no one can get too pissed off, in theory), leading us to wonder why, if linguists are so fond of the epicene they, we don’t see it in their writings! (I’m lookin’ at you, fellow copy editors. HARD. Thank goodness for the discussion of this topic at ACES 2015, or I’d be glaring daggers.)

I smiled so wide I nearly cracked my face open when I read the following: “I must note that the copy editor for this book, upon reading this section, actually allowed me to use singular they throughout the book. Here’s to them in awed gratitude!”

Now I’m hearing mumbling that “surely he knows the gender of his editor, so why not use the appropriate pronoun there?” Well, here’s my two cents, worth what you paid for it: It shouldn’t matter, in this setting. The gender of the editor is secondary to the job they did. The point he’s making is, his editor green-lighted the usage, and he’s delighted about that. Using “them” in that sentence makes nothing but sense in this setting, for this audience. Had he used “him” or “her,” the point would have been entirely gutted.

Topic. Audience. Setting. Register. All those things work together to frame the voice in which we best communicate our point. The book’s about, among other things, why “the rules” don’t work or make sense (or both); about where the weirdnesses in English came from; about how English continues to change; and about how “rules” eventually fall by the wayside, when it’s realized they’re . . . well . . . dumb.

Here’s a link to a review from Neal Whitman (who’s on Twitter, @LiteralMinded). He says what I’m thinking much better than I can.

Also, know that you can get the introduction to McWhorter’s book FREE in .pdf format from PBS.org.

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