Pronouns are personal

By which I mean, people get to choose their pronouns. Now that the breaking down of the gender binary is in full swing (and I hope it keeps right on breaking, personally), if someone identifies as NB (nonbinary, or enby), they get to choose “they” if that’s how they want to be referred to. (I’ll wager there are other flavors involved, like genderfluid, but as a bi cis woman, I don’t get to claim I know anything. I’ve seen it discussed, and the conversation’s far from over.)

So, when a professional editor tells an author (one they’re going to publish!) that “they” is unacceptable and that gendered pronouns must be used in the author’s bio (IN THEIR OWN BIO!), well …

Twitter drags them. And rightly so.

I wrote two tweets in response to this mess. The first one had my usual vulgarity (because yes, I believe this is utter bullshit and I call it like I see it); the second was written in a higher register, with more formal word choices and tone (but I still used singular they, ja you betcha). Why? Because of a related issue. At least I see they’re related. Actually, there are three that come to mind.

One is policing people’s language and word choice to reinforce the status quo. I suppose I get this one on level, maybe. But honestly, who is being harmed by someone choosing to be called “they/them?” Who’s injured by that? No one. Oh, sure, you can tell me it’s “harming the language.”

Guess what. It’s not doing any such thing.

Another is using your platform (as a editor, a publisher, a reviewer, whatever) to tell someone that your English is better and therefore YOU are better. That’s what happens when someone denies someone else the choice of a pronoun set. It’s classist (“I speak properly, you don’t”) and it’s phobic (“I’m straight and cis, and you’re something else, and that scares me so no, you can’t use those pronouns”).

It’s unethical and it’s rude (and it’s outmoded). I’ll bet you all know that “they” has been used in the singular since the 1300s. EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS. And a considerable amount of that usage has been printed and published.

Then there’s the “they never whine about ‘you,’ so why are they mad about ‘they?'” contingent. Well, they don’t whine about “you” because that particular change has been over and done (and the singular usage established) for nearly as long, coinciding with the Early Modern English years (roughly the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, or mid-1450s through early 1700s).

I’m no linguist, nor do I play one on TV. But I’ll take a shot in the dark at this. I wonder if the big pushback against “they” as a singular pronoun has to do with gender. Bear with me.

“You” and “ye” are/were second-person pronouns. “Ye” was singular, “you” plural. Here’s the thing: when you’re speaking to another person, you don’t NEED to specify their gender. (Oh DeAr GoDs A sInGuLaR “tHeIr”) You’re right there with them, looking at them. And with the plural, it doesn’t matter anyway. We don’t use gender markers with second-person pronouns. Only with third-person (he/him/his and she/her/hers, but the plural is they/them/theirs).

That fear of “not knowing if they’re male or female or what” is, I think, what’s keeping the fire lit under the cauldron of singular they.

Why is it so scary? They are who they are. You are who you are. I am who I am.

What’s scary about that?

Third, there’s the register issue. Formal registers use formal grammar and language and diction (word choices). Informal ones use casual forms. My first tweet contained the word “bullshit” twice. And you know what? I’m positive (and I do mean positive) that some folks brushed it off because of that word. Surely a professional, a former English teacher, would never, ever use such language. Therefore, this person (me!) must not really be a professional.

Guess what. Professionals curse. A LOT. And on Twitter? Boy, howdy. That’s like a big backyard party, with folks coming and going and just chatting and being themselves. I curse on Twitter, especially when I get angry about something. And ESPECIALLY when that something is a professional in my field (editing) behaving badly toward an author.

However, I decided this morning to RT the original tweet again, and this time my comment was in a far more formal register. (I still used a singular they, because TAKE THAT, ENGLISH TEACHER BRAIN!) And I noticed that a different group of people interacted with that one. Now, that could be merely a case of them not seeing last night’s tweet. But, it could just as well be a case of them choosing not to give attention to that one because of the language, and interacting with the “proper” one instead.

I dunno.

And I honestly don’t care. I’m not being harmed by it, and neither is anyone else. I choose my words as I see fit, taking many factors into account. I said basically the same thing in both comments, but one was more personal (“find a different publisher because this is bullshit”) and the other more formal (“it’s a breach of ethics and trust to deny an author the right to choose the pronouns they want used in their own bio”).

And I’m standing by all of it.

[There has been a non-apology issued by the publisher, by which I mean it was mealy-mouthed: “we had no idea” (you did, once the author pointed it out to you, but you ignored it and dug in) and “we apologize for any pain we may have caused” but without a direct “We’re sorry, and we’ll do better” to the wronged author. Ugh]

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. Continue reading “More thoughts on “singular they””