“They” – A Controversy

Some of you might already have strong opinions on one side or the other of this debate. Though I have my own opinions, I acknowledge the points of view of each side, and am going to attempt to describe the reasoning of both groups fairly. For those of you who are not familiar with this, let me bring you up to speed on word-politics and the “they” controversy.

Standardized Rules vs. Common Usage

Language is a highly variable social tool used by humans (and perhaps other primates) to communicate which cannot be easily controlled. It is an evolving, living thing.

Words can gain additional meanings or change meaning entirely through common usage, no matter how forceful the grammar books— because ultimately, language is propagated by those who use it.

However, there are still methods of guiding language usage to some extent. We have successfully created standard and nonstandard spellings of words, we have introduced politically correct phrases into the language, and we have created words for our fiction that enter the language itself.

(I’ll probably be coming back to this idea in future posts, because I find it fascinating.)

There is always a bit of a battle going on between those that view language in a more standardized way and those that view language in a more democratic, communication-based way. The difference is that the former group views language as something that can be correct or incorrect, and the latter views language as something that just is.

I tend to side with the latter, personally, though I do acknowledge that because all words have connotation, different sorts of words imply varying levels of formality, friendliness, familiarity, intimacy, seriousness, etc. and should be chosen with care and used in the right contexts. So for me, “ain’t” is definitely a legitimate word, but I never use it in academic or work-related settings.

If everything I’ve said so far sounds agreeable, let me test your loyalty.

As of 2013, Google, Marriam Webster, and Cambridge dictionaries include definitions of “literally” that mean something not literally true, but indicates emphasis or strong feeling. Literally can mean not literally.

Are you frustrated? Enough people use the word to indicate hyperbole that the definition of the word altered. The old definition is still there, but there’s a new one too.

I can easily understand leaning toward the standardized view of language. It is often fueled by thoughts such as:

“So if enough ignorant people use a word incorrectly, it becomes correct? What kind of world is this, anyway?”

“What if everyone starts using an incorrect word, and then I’M wrong for not using it?”

“What’s the point of learning grammar if it can change? Did I waste all that time in school?”

“Our language is degrading and our words are starting to have less flavor, like old chewing gum.”

The more democratic, usage-based view of language is really powerful, though, like I’ve said. The grammatical rules often change to accommodate the reality of how people are speaking as much, if not more so, than the other way around. This phenomena brings us the word “hackable,” “Google” as a verb, and the grammatical sentence “Because reasons.”

You can either think that’s horrible or fantastic, but either way, language marches on, and the dictionaries are only keeping track of its evolution, not deciding it.

The second definition of the word “They” is particularly controversial. 

They is a common word. Its definition is usually a gender neutral plural pronoun. Where it gets politicized is its potential for a second definition meaning a gender neutral singular pronoun.

If this seems like an insignificant distinction, check out how long the wikipedia page for it is. (And this one.)

The second definition has been used since the fifteenth century and by many notable authors (Shakespeare being one), but has been condemned in grammar books since around the nineteenth century.

Today, there are two big schools of thought on the issue:

  1. Our language does need a singular gender-neutral pronoun, but “they” is either plural or overly casual and therefore shouldn’t be used in formal contexts, literature, etc. Strong believers in this side view the second definition as strictly incorrect and users of it as failing grammatically. This group often advises the use of “one,” the generic “he,” “he/she,” alternating “he” and “she” or occasionally, new pronouns such as “zhe/zir,” “‘e/’s/‘h,” or “hu/hus/hum” (though these tend to not be adopted fully to the language because they don’t enter common usage).

    The reader will discover his desire for chocolate shortly after reading this.
    The reader will discover his/her desire for chocolate shortly after reading this.
    The reader will discover hus desire for chocolate shortly after reading this.

  2. Our language does need a singular gender-neutral pronoun, and “they” has already been accepted and in usage for hundreds of years, so we might as well stop fighting it if we don’t need to. This group often advises the use of “they” or “one” depending on connotation, with “they” indicating either a more casual or a more literary connotation and “one” indicating a more distant or academic one.

    The reader will discover their desire for chocolate shortly after reading this.

I generally don’t like to make guesses about the future, but I do think that in the next several decades, our language will accept “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. I personally am enthusiastic about this, because I’m on team “they,” but whether you would smile or cringe at this development of language, let me give the top reasons why I think we can expect this change in language.

Reasons for “They” 

  • Familiarity: We’re already used to using it, as we have been for hundreds of years. It makes me think of a wave versus a sand-castle.
  • Grammatical consistency: I know, you’re thinking that I’m crazy here, but think about it. The word “you” is a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, and it’s also a plural, gender neutral pronoun. Our language already created this grammatical rule, and it’s been working pretty well for us.

    Singular:”You went to the store for pancake mix, right?” “They went to the store for pancake mix, right?”
    Plural:”I welcome you here today.” “I welcome them here today.”

  • Feminism: It gets us away from the generic “he” which implies male is standard and female is “other.” Our language has already seen a lot of change in the area of gender neutral words for this reason. (Police officer, fire fighter, mail carrier, etc.)
  • Poetics: They sounds smoother and more concise than “he/she” or “he or she.”
  • Storytelling: Imagine a scene written in first-person limited point of view where our protagonist is watching a masked murderer. How many times should someone write “the masked murderer” before surrendering to the pronoun? If one chooses either “he” or “she” it immediately limits our suspects to half the population instead of the whole population.
    This might be a specific case, but clearly authors have found need of the word in the past, because it has been used in many texts. I believe writers will continue to find instances where “they” is the most convenient and concise word to use, and that the grammatical rule will not have much power stopping them.
  • Inclusion: Not all people are male or female. There are women, men, genderqueer people, agender people, bigender people, gender fluid people, third gender people, two-spirit people, and many others. Just because they aren’t currently well represented in writing doesn’t mean they will be outside our formal essays and storytelling forever. I’d like to see a lot more non-binary individuals entering fiction, and their inclusion in the world of literature should certainly not be held up by a single grammatical preference (my opinion).
    Imagine an agender protagonist— “He/she” is offensive, because our character is neither. “It” is offensive because the word connotes a denial of  personhood. Alternate pronouns may be acceptable if the character identifies with them, but what if they don’t? Why not just say “Tyler made their favorite sandwich for lunch”?
    I think the growing awareness of non-binary people will be a huge pressure to accept the second definition of “they.”

So, for those on either side of the debate, keep making your use or disuse of “they” a statement. Let me know if you have anything to contribute on either side, because I love thinking about this word.

I’m already placing my bet on the outcome, but I look forward to seeing what the grammar books are saying a couple decades from now.


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