They is just sayin’

As most of my regular readers already know, I’m a retired editor. And as you might have guessed, I have followed — with considerable consternation — the discussions and explanations regarding the use of they as a singular pronoun. I am well aware that is has been used as a singular pronoun for hundreds of years. I am also aware that the Associated Press, the Chicago Manual of Style, and several dictionaries have condoned its use as a singular pronoun. And I understand the reasons why some individuals prefer to be called “they” rather than “he” or “she.”

However, none of that changes the fact that for thirty years I carefully edited or wrote around the use of they as a singular pronoun. And in formal, written English I will continue to do so. Yes, in casual speech and probably in casual writing, I’ve used it as a singular pronoun. For example: “Somebody left their book on the desk.”

But I draw the line at certain usages. Recently, while searching for information about an actor, I found the following in Wikipedia: “Rebecca Edison ‘Bex’ Taylor-Klaus is an American actor. They rose to fame for their starring role as Bullet on the crime drama series The Killing.”

No. Just no. I’d have rewritten that, perhaps as “Rebecca Edison ‘Bex’ Taylor-Klaus is an American actor who rose to fame in the starring role of Bullet on the crime drama series ‘The Killing.'”

In any case, it was that particular trampling of my professional sensibilities that caused me to comment today. I shall continue in my old-fashioned ways and if you find that objectionable, console yourself with the fact that I am now retired and won’t be editing your writing.



Categories: language

22 replies

  1. I thought this was fascinating, never thought about this, what seemed such a small thing about a word in such a deep manner. And please don’t say anything about my grammar or writing, I know is terrible. Just trying to work on it as much as I can. It was a great read.

    • Thank you, Charly. I suppose it’s a kind of nitpicky thing to write about, but it really bugs me. I try hard to understand and accept our changing society but when it starts messing with language, I have a really hard time.

      Feel free to comment here any time. I don’t criticize anyone’s grammar or writing. I’m just happy to get comments!

  2. I agree with you, PT, in both of your good examples. Of even greater concern to me is the usage of “I” instead of “me”, mainly because it makes one wonder if the speaker understands why grammar is important to clarity. Maybe it’s because I’m more sensitive to it lately, but it seems increasingly common, even among educated people who should know better. I suspect the trend reflects a cultural proclivity to de-emphasize one’s self-interest. Is it associated with similar trends like income disparity, or is it a sign of increased celebrity emulation? I do know it’s not uniquely American; I actually heard Prince Harry make the error in a speech last week! Will the me-too movement have to rename itself “I too”? Maybe. In any case, I don’t think there’s much editor-fear left out there. Emily Post is long gone from the scene, spinning in her tomb no doubt.

  3. I totally understand your distaste for this rule change. As an English teacher, it has been a difficult adjustment. Over the past year more and more of my students have asked for me to use “they” when referring to them due to gender identity issues. When someone you care about asks you to make a change so you can honor and respect how they view themselves, the change is a bit easier to digest. I respect your decision to stand firm, but I challenge you to think about something you’ve asked people to understand for you to feel comfortable and safe in this life. How does it feel when people/person refuses just because it’s different? The beauty of language is it’s ability to be modified with changes in our society. Change is tough, but it is for a good and worthy cause.

  4. I have been seeing an alarming increase in bad grammar in new books, I’ve wondered where the editors all went. Perhaps a whole generation of you have retired. Oh, no! We need you back!

    Regarding the use of “they”, I struggle with that as well. Gender is suddenly such a loaded topic and of course I would never want to hurt someone. In French one can use the gender -neutral “On”. That always seemed better to me. Our language strongly tilts in favor of the masculine, a sore point to feminists. Ah, well. It is an imperfect world.

  5. Symptoms. 

    Most of the mentioned language failures (anomalies?) are (IMNSHO) symptoms of an increasing percentage of the population who believe that “earning” is equivalent to the receipt of an so-called entitlement.

  6. Every so often my daughter (age 41) comments that she’s so thankful that we had a “grammar rule” at the dinner table. If they (three children) made a grammar mistake in a sentence, he/she would have to start over. Even her older brothers would correct her (amazingly gently). But the rule worked. She was the youngest and I don’t think the rule had be regularly employed after she reached 8. You can’t depend on the education system to do everything.

  7. It drives me batty, and I, too, edit around it. However, another problem is rising, one that I think will, or at least should, be a death-knell for certain style guides: What title does one use? Mr., Ms. Mrs., Miss–all are gender-specific. My own opinion is to follow other languages that don’t have gender-specific personal pronouns, but “ZOMG, don’t call me an IT!”

    • That’s a very good question. I’d not thought about it until now. Maybe this is where we’ll need to invent a new word. And while we can use just last names in much of our writing (except the NYT), we’re going to need something for introductions and greetings in social and business situations. It makes sense to employ the usages from other languages, although offhand I don’t know of any that are gender- (and marital-status-) neutral.

"Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got." ~ Art Buchwald

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