Tuesday 26 June 2012

A Defence of the Singular They

All my life, I've used 'they' as a singular pronoun when talking about some unspecified individual who's gender is unknown and irrelevant. It came as some surprise to me to find out, in recent months, that this is apparently the subject of contention.

But since it appears to be, I thought I'd chip in my two cents on the issue. Without further ado, here's why I say that singular they is a perfectly valid use.

It's better than the alternatives
There are several alternatives for third person singular, gender neutral pronouns. And all but one of them suck.

There's 'it', which is rude and by convention isn't used to refer to humans old enough to distinguish their gender without taking their nappy off.

There are such remedies as 'he or she', which are clumsy and tedious.

There are all kinds of invented pronouns, which most of us don't understand, and even if we did, words forcibly invented and inserted into a living language are as alien and invasive as mink in a British stream. Perhaps eventually they'll become part of the landscape - like rabbits, which were introduced by the invading Romans and are now considered native - but until then don't try and tell me I have to like them.

There's the age old tradition of picking a gender - usually male - and running with it. Which in most situations these days is asking to be shot down in flames. Or similarly to alternate he and she, but referring to the same person by different pronouns has a tendency to be confusing.

Some advocate simply restructuring language to avoid the problem, but the problem will still exist; even if you're willing to put up with the more clumsy sentence which sometimes results, sometimes it's not possible to make a reasonable restructuring.

Or there's the singular they. Which works in nearly all situations where you need a singular, third person, gender neutral pronoun.

There's precedent
You don't object when I call you by that pronoun, I assume?

As anyone who knows a language such as French, Spanish, or German knows, English is unusual in only having one second person pronoun. And strictly speaking we don't. We have two: thou and you, but thou has fallen out of use to the point where it isn't standard English any more and is only used, often incorrectly, by people who want to make the dialogue in their historical story sound more authentically historical.

You was the analogue of the French vous (for example), and thou meant the same as tu.

You, or vous is plural and thou or tu singular, but you/vous is also used as a polite singular pronoun. Tu/thou is insulting, although it may be used informally as well, in much the same way that you might give your best mate a slap on the back where you would shake a stranger's hand. Or occasionally and affectionately refer to your younger brother as 'it'. And in English, for some reason, we stopped using the insulting version entirely and use you as singular whoever we're talking to.

Likewise, we have two gender neutral third person pronouns, singular and plural, it and they. 'It' is insulting, so why shouldn't we use the same solution and say 'they' for all?

It just is
As I say, I've used it all my life, and it's never appeared to be contentious. Certainly, a large proportion of people use it, and have for a long time, and doubtless it's been used in print, and everyone understands it. That's more-or-less the definition of being correct in a living language.

Any thoughts?

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