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Singular They Part II
Despite curmudgeons’ howls, the singular they has become respectable. Many editors at the recent American Copy Editors Society conference
declared themselves open to the once-frowned-upon use of they with a singular antecedent.
English is an often imperfect language that makes the best of its shortcomings. We say “none are,” despite the prominent one
in none, because English has no other pronoun meaning “not any.”
And although the relative pronoun who can refer only to humans, its possessive form, whose, is routinely used with animals: a dog whose collar fell off and inanimate objects: a bridge whose view is unsurpassed. Not even the strictest language purist denounces the nonhuman whose because English lacks
a corresponding word that refers to creatures and things.
Similarly, as the writer Ben Zimmer notes, “English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and ‘they’ has for
centuries been pressed into service for that purpose.”
Last week we acknowledged the historical validity of they and its variants in sentences like “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.” Then a reader informed us that singular they has become a
practical way of addressing or describing those in the LGBT community who prefer they to masculine or feminine pronouns.
So history and contemporary life both make a credible case for singular they. But now, with the taboo lifting, expect unintended consequences.
Writers will become increasingly sloppy with pronoun-antecedent agreement. Here is a sentence from a recent article by a professional journalist:
“Neither Indiana nor any other state has described their religious-rights laws as discriminatory.” Change “their” to
“its.” No gender issues there; the writer simply botched it.
When an antecedent includes or implies both sexes, old-school types sometimes must resort to the clumsy phrase he or she, himself or herself, etc.: Every student has done his or her homework. Writers despise he or she, which may be barely tolerable once but becomes preposterous
beyond that: Every student has done his or her homework, and he or she will be expected to discuss his or her work in class. That hopeless sentence requires a complete rewrite.
An obstinate cadre of traditionalists will always resist singular they. “The solution here,” says Theodore M. Bernstein in
The Careful Writer, “is to recognize the imperfection of the language and modify the wording.” Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage concurs. Noting that
“sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge,” Garner says “the only course that does not risk damaging one’s credibility
is to write around the problem.”
Even with the recent acceptance of singular they,
we suggest using it sparingly, if at all. When confronted with a sentence like Every student has done their homework, you only need a moment to come up with The students have each done their homework.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
If you have misgivings about the singular they, try rewriting these sentences culled from the print media. Our suggestions are below.
1. Everyone involved was doing what they thought was right.
2. Any parent who has enrolled their child knows what to expect.
3. Sometimes in this business, when you come across a comedy legend, they come off as jaded.
4. Even if a hacker has your password, they won’t have the code.
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I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.
England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.
Be kind to your dentist. He has fillings, too.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. All those involved were doing what they thought was right.
2. Any parent who has enrolled a child knows what to expect.
3. Sometimes in this business you come across a comedy legend who comes off as jaded.
4. Even a hacker who has your password won’t have the code.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.