You Know What They Say About “They”

 

Most of my pet peeves have to do with words and their use, misuse, and abuse — though baseball caps worn backward irritate me too. Give me a few more years and I’ll probably let my inner Kowalski run free, but so far I’ve kept him pretty well in check: I’m generally a live and let live kind of guy.

The use of the third-person plural pronoun “they” in reference to a single individual has always stuck in my craw. Saying “he or she” isn’t so hard, and has the virtue of grammatical correctness. Anyway, that’s what I thought, until I bothered to look up the use/misuse of the word in this context.

If the precedent of historical usage counts for anything — and it counts for quite a lot, where words are concerned — I have to give this one up: since at least the 13th century, people have been using “they” when they mean “he or she” but either don’t know the sexual specificity or don’t want to waste breath communicating it. I may be lexicologically cantankerous, but this isn’t the wild west and I’m no cowboy: if the law says “they” works, then “they” works. Let it go.

At least, that’s what I figured, until it struck me that saying “he or she” has the virtue, beyond simply being grammatically squeaky-clean, of rubbing the noses in gently communicating to a modern “woke” audience the truth that there really are only boys and girls, men and women. I’m willing to spend a couple of extra syllables to drive that point home, even in contexts where it’s completely beside the point and of no interest to anyone but me. So, even though I could use “they” to mean “he or she,” and do so feeling completely exonerated by its rich and ancient pedigree, I’m not going to, because we live in an era when people need to be reminded of even the simplest and most obvious truths, lest they be seduced by farcical tales of gender abundance and start inventing idiotic pronouns for themselves.

Now get off my lawn.

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There are 42 comments.

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  1. Arahant Member

    If they don’t want to be “he” or “she,” we have another singular pronoun: it. There is no need for xer or they. There are only three choices: he, she, or it. Which is it gonna be?

    • #1
    • October 1, 2019, at 11:49 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  2. EDISONPARKS Member

    • #2
    • October 2, 2019, at 5:27 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Full Size Tabby Member

    Even if the “singular they” has ancient usage, its usage creates ambiguity in two characteristics – the sex of the person and the number of people. I have enough trouble following who is the subject of a sentence (which of multiple “he’s” in the story is this particular “he” at this point in the sentence? especially when so many writers and speakers are sloppy about their subject/verb parallelisms). If the writer or speaker adds to my confusion by creating ambiguity about whether he or she is referring to one person or to multiple people, I’m not sure that writer or speaker really wants to communicate with me.

    I think we should be encouraging greater precision in language for better communication, not more ambiguity for poorer communication. 

    • #3
    • October 2, 2019, at 5:35 AM PDT
    • 12 likes
  4. Stad Thatcher

    As I said in a comment in another post, we Southerners have been using “they” as singular in certain situations for a long time. However, being forced to use it in order to “cleanse” the English language of “sexist” gender uasge is not the way to go . . .

    • #4
    • October 2, 2019, at 5:42 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  5. Kephalithos Member

    The singular “they” also forces writers to use plural verbs and plural object pronouns, which add even more confusion and ugliness. A few people have tried to solve this problem by inventing words like “themself.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m tempted, upon hearing this, to climb into my oven.

    In speech, a singular “they” here and there is inevitable. In writing, it’s revolting — especially if the writer is using it consistently and in a way which makes obvious his (or her) ideological leanings.

    • #5
    • October 2, 2019, at 6:48 AM PDT
    • 12 likes
  6. Kephalithos Member

    [Double post.]

    • #6
    • October 2, 2019, at 6:50 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Stad Thatcher

    Kephalithos (View Comment):
    In speech, a “they” here and there is inevitable. In writing, it’s revolting — especially if the writer is using it consistently and in a way which makes obvious his (or her) ideological leanings.

    Nailed it.

    • #7
    • October 2, 2019, at 6:51 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. PHenry Member

    They as a pronoun for one person implies multiple personality disorder to me. I don’t think that is what they intend, but that is how it sounds. 

    Why not just call them Pat? 

    https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/pat-at-the-drugstore/n10063

    • #8
    • October 2, 2019, at 6:52 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  9. Kephalithos Member

    Arahant (View Comment): If they don’t want to be “he” or “she,” we have another singular pronoun: it. There is no need for xer or they. There are only three choices: he, she, or it. Which is it gonna be?

    It casts its ballot for Ms. Warren, or it gets four years of orange!

    • #9
    • October 2, 2019, at 7:03 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    I am a professional writer, and it is a point of pride with me that I never resort to the singular “they” in my writing. There are always ways of writing around the problem, usually without resorting to the awkward “he or she” (or the even worse “s/he”). However, I probably use it on occasion in casual conversation without thinking about it, and it doesn’t bother me too much when other people use it in situations where it’s warranted. (Most often when a word like “someone” is the antecedent of the pronoun.)

    What really bugs me is the modern tendency I’ve noticed for people to use the singular “they” in cases where there is no justification at all for using a gender-neutral pronoun. For example: “I once went to that restaurant with a girlfriend, but they didn’t like the food.” Huh? It’s as if people have become conditioned to believe that gender-specific pronouns are always offensive.

    Language changes organically, and I accept that usage evolves over time. But I fight against any change that actually reduces the utility of the language by removing information or impairing precision.

    • #10
    • October 2, 2019, at 7:18 AM PDT
    • 13 likes
  11. Kephalithos Member

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment): What really bugs me is the modern tendency I’ve noticed for people to use the singular “they” in cases where there is no justification at all for using a gender-neutral pronoun. For example: “I once went to that restaurant with a girlfriend, but they didn’t like the food.” Huh? It’s as if people have become conditioned to believe that gender-specific pronouns are always offensive.

    Amen! Every now and then (usually in an undergraduate paper), I’ll read something like this:

    In Federalist 10, James Madison discusses the development of faction. They argue that faction threatens the public good, and . . .

    Say what you will about gender-neutral pronouns, but I’d bet all four of my limbs that James Madison identified as a “he.”

    • #11
    • October 2, 2019, at 7:24 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  12. MarciN Member

    What bothers me the most about the loss of the singular pronouns is that it is part of our evolving transformation into a collectivist society. This is a George Orwell and Ayn Rand nightmare coming to life.

    • #12
    • October 2, 2019, at 7:39 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  13. Arahant Member

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    Even if the “singular they” has ancient usage, its usage creates ambiguity in two characteristics – the sex of the person and the number of people. I have enough trouble following who is the subject of a sentence (which of multiple “he’s” in the story is this particular “he” at this point in the sentence? especially when so many writers and speakers are sloppy about their subject/verb parallelisms). If the writer or speaker adds to my confusion by creating ambiguity about whether he or she is referring to one person or to multiple people, I’m not sure that writer or speaker really wants to communicate with me.

    I think we should be encouraging greater precision in language for better communication, not more ambiguity for poorer communication.

    Amen!

    • #13
    • October 2, 2019, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. Stina Member

    Henry Racette: Saying “he or she” isn’t so hard

    It is obfuscatory and inelegant.

    PROPER was using “he” to stand in for “he” AND “she”, but all the feminists in the English Department expounded on the evil of only addressing men in writing.

    Baby Center alternates “he” and “she” by paragraph in descriptors of baby milestones. I like that method.

    The use of “they” in place of “he” was to pacify the idiots who really wanted everything to be “she” but lacked the balls to out themselves as misandrists and female chauvinists. They were still flying by night then.

    I reject your “he or she” and would rather go back to “he”. If you really must be inclusive, “(s)he” is enough.

    • #14
    • October 2, 2019, at 10:51 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Stina Member

    PHenry (View Comment):

    They as a pronoun for one person implies multiple personality disorder to me. I don’t think that is what they intend, but that is how it sounds.

    Why not just call them Pat?

    https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/pat-at-the-drugstore/n10063

    “We are Legion!”

    • #15
    • October 2, 2019, at 10:55 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. Aaron Miller Member

    For a while, I adopted a habit of writing “he or she” and “his or hers” when discussing people generally, in an attempt to better include female readers. But it is so laborious and cluttering that I have returned to use of one set of pronouns to describe a theoretical person. Of course, I am not bothered if a female writer prefers female pronouns for her own theoretical references.

    The grammatical error that annoys me most frequently is use of “may” when “might” or “can” is intended. Even conservatives and traditional people have forgotten the implication of permission that “may” represents.

    • #16
    • October 2, 2019, at 11:13 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    Stina (View Comment):

    Henry Racette: Saying “he or she” isn’t so hard

    It is obfuscatory and inelegant.

    PROPER was using “he” to stand in for “he” AND “she”, but all the feminists in the English Department expounded on the evil of only addressing men in writing.

    Baby Center alternates “he” and “she” by paragraph in descriptors of baby milestones. I like that method.

    The use of “they” in place of “he” was to pacify the idiots who really wanted everything to be “she” but lacked the balls to out themselves as misandrists and female chauvinists. They were still flying by night then.

    I reject your “he or she” and would rather go back to “he”. If you really must be inclusive, “(s)he” is enough.

    It’s interesting how various solutions to this not-quite-a-problem strike different people.

    It isn’t obfuscatory to say “he or she” if we’re talking about a particular individual and we don’t know the sex of that individual. Quite the opposite: “he or she” communicates that we don’t know whether we’re talking about a male or a female.

    In general, the use of either “he” or “she” is fine for hypothetical individuals, but simply wrong for actual individuals of unknown sex. If writing of an actual but unknown individual, writing “he” (or, for that matter, “she”) is presumptuous and possibly misleading. 

    (There’s a special danger for those of us who have occasion to write instructional material, which is to inadvertently use “she” when describing tasks — for example, clerical or menial office tasks — which we associate with female workers.)

    The practice of alternating “he” and “she” is one I find distracting, even jarring. I would far prefer “he or she.” Similarly, “s/he,” while occasionally appropriate in terse, businesslike writing, isn’t something I’d use: “s/he” is a non-word, and the substitution of a non-word to avoid using the perfectly serviceable “he or she” strikes me as a step backward.

    No, “he or she” seems like a relatively painless approach. Restructuring the text so that “one” works is usually an option as well. I’m sympathetic to those who simply resort to “they,” given how common the practice has become.

    But I do agree with you that, when writing about hypothetical individuals, simply using either “he” or “she” and sticking with that pronoun and presumed sex is a fine technique.

    • #17
    • October 2, 2019, at 11:20 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  18. Locke On Member

    “They”, as a third person ‘indefinite’ when the person who will fill the role described is unknown, doesn’t bother me. As mentioned above, it’s been in vernacular use for some time, and is also common in tech writing when the ‘he or she’ construction just gets in the way. I’m not going to get wound into a ‘Knights of Ni’ snit over this common use of “they” because it’s become politically charged.

    However, I refuse to use “they” for someone who is known, either through personal experience or because they (Ni!) are present in the flesh or virtually. If such a person wants a pronoun, they (Ni!) get the one appropriate to the sex (one or the other) that they (Ni!) are presenting.

    Don’t like it, give me your real name, or go change your costume. I’ll call you the name you want out of respect (just don’t ask for Queen Victoria or JC or the like), but I refuse to mutilate the language to spare your fragile feelings.

    • #18
    • October 2, 2019, at 12:15 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  19. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    The practice of alternating “he” and “she” is one I find distracting, even jarring. I would far prefer “he or she.” Similarly, “s/he,” while occasionally appropriate in terse, businesslike writing, isn’t something I’d use: “s/he” is a non-word, and the substitution of a non-word to avoid using the perfectly serviceable “he or she” strikes me as a step backward.

    No, “he or she” seems like a relatively painless approach. Restructuring the text so that “one” works is usually an option as well. I’m sympathetic to those who simply resort to “they,” given how common the practice has become.

    Agreed on all points. The alternating “he” and “she” is distracting, in part because (rightly or wrongly) it calls attention to the fact that the writer is bending over backwards to be Inclusive and Diverse. And constructions like “s/he” or “s(he)” are abominations, not even words; if nothing else, they are guaranteed to trip up anyone who is reading your text out loud. “He or she” is somewhat clumsy, but it has the advantage of being perfectly grammatical and completely clear in its meaning. I prefer not to use it if I can avoid it, but it’s hard to object to it in cases where it’s really necessary.

    It’s remarkable, really, how often you can avoid the problem entirely, though. Much of what i write is procedural usage documentation, and in that context, it’s almost always best to use the second person. Don’t write The user can change his or her password; write You can change your password. And if you really are talking about someone other than the reader, plural is your friend: Users can change their passwords.

    • #19
    • October 2, 2019, at 12:24 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  20. Stad Thatcher

    Stina (View Comment):

    Henry Racette: Saying “he or she” isn’t so hard

    It is obfuscatory and inelegant.

    PROPER was using “he” to stand in for “he” AND “she”, but all the feminists in the English Department expounded on the evil of only addressing men in writing.

    Baby Center alternates “he” and “she” by paragraph in descriptors of baby milestones. I like that method.

    The use of “they” in place of “he” was to pacify the idiots who really wanted everything to be “she” but lacked the balls to out themselves as misandrists and female chauvinists. They were still flying by night then.

    I reject your “he or she” and would rather go back to “he”. If you really must be inclusive, “(s)he” is enough.

    “He and she” and “he or she” make both spoken and written language cumbersome.

    • #20
    • October 2, 2019, at 12:28 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  21. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    Stad (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):

    Henry Racette: Saying “he or she” isn’t so hard

    It is obfuscatory and inelegant.

    PROPER was using “he” to stand in for “he” AND “she”, but all the feminists in the English Department expounded on the evil of only addressing men in writing.

    Baby Center alternates “he” and “she” by paragraph in descriptors of baby milestones. I like that method.

    The use of “they” in place of “he” was to pacify the idiots who really wanted everything to be “she” but lacked the balls to out themselves as misandrists and female chauvinists. They were still flying by night then.

    I reject your “he or she” and would rather go back to “he”. If you really must be inclusive, “(s)he” is enough.

    “He and she” and “he or she” make both spoken and written language cumbersome.

    I suppose it depends on how comfortable one is with loquacity, Stad.

    I’m very comfortable with loquacity.

    “He or she” is just fine. Though, obviously, it’s important that the “he” always be placed first.

    • #21
    • October 2, 2019, at 12:38 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. Vance Richards Member

    He, she, or they. That’s it? A rather unwoke view of pronouns. What do you think this is 2017?

    • #22
    • October 2, 2019, at 1:47 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  23. Stad Thatcher

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Though, obviously, it’s important that the “he” always be placed first.

    Oh man . . . I hope you survive . . .

    • #23
    • October 2, 2019, at 2:20 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  24. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    Stad (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Though, obviously, it’s important that the “he” always be placed first.

    Oh man . . . I hope you survive . . .

    I’m referring only to writing, of course. In the real world, women should precede men through doors and up (but not down) stairs. Obviously.

    • #24
    • October 2, 2019, at 2:29 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  25. Kephalithos Member

    Henry Racette (View Comment): I’m referring only to writing, of course. In the real world, women should precede men through doors and up (but not down) stairs. Obviously.

    Up stairs?

    Methinks you just added a dollop of rape culture to your muffin of misogyny.

    • #25
    • October 2, 2019, at 2:48 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  26. Arahant Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment): I’m referring only to writing, of course. In the real world, women should precede men through doors and up (but not down) stairs. Obviously.

    Up stairs?

    You just added a dollop of rape culture to your muffin of misogyny.

    The concept is that if the woman stumbles (in either direction), the man is lower down to stop her tumbling fall.

    • #26
    • October 2, 2019, at 2:50 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  27. Kephalithos Member

    Arahant (View Comment): The concept is that if the woman stumbles (in either direction), the man is lower down to stop her tumbling fall.

    Well, as a Young Person™, I can assure you that the concept has entirely disappeared from mainstream culture.

    • #27
    • October 2, 2019, at 2:53 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  28. Arahant Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):
    Well, as a Young Person™, I can assure you that the concept has entirely disappeared from mainstream culture.

    Yeah. We know. That’s why I was happy to explain it to you. Maybe next time you’re in a stair situation with a female-type person, you’ll remember it.

    Most of the old chivalric rules had good logic behind them. It wasn’t just, “Patriarchy!”

    • #28
    • October 2, 2019, at 2:58 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  29. Mark Camp Member

    The coefficient of liking equals the product of the number of sentences, the intensity of one’s liking reaction to it, and the statistical rarity of the opinion expressed in the sentence.

    It’s quantifiable that I liked this. 

     

    • #29
    • October 2, 2019, at 3:13 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  30. Man With the Axe Member

    The singular “they” leads to less understanding. We get sentences like: “My sister walked into a lampost and they fell down and hurt themselves.” All to describe what happened to a known female. 

    Or this: “My friend had to appear before the disciplinary committee. They were too nervous to keep themselves from shaking.” What? Who was nervous? The committee? What the H are you talking about? 

    We are not making this up, by the way. 

    • #30
    • October 2, 2019, at 3:16 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
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