Thursday, May 5, 2016

Personal Pronoun Wars

Last December a member of the Washington Post copy editing team wrote about changes in the style guide, which lays out the spelling, punctuation and grammar rules for articles in the paper.

The big change in the paper's guide regarded the pronoun "they," which now may be used -- but only as a last resort -- on second reference to a generic, unidentified person.

Let's trace the origins of this change.  Here is a sentence that would be acceptable until sometime in the 1970s.

          Nearly everyone thinks he needs to lose weight.  

Then came third-wave feminism and a lot of deploring of male appropriation of the indefinite singular pronoun.  Various solutions were proposed and tried out.

         Nearly everyone thinks she needs to lose weight
         Nearly everyone thinks he or she needs to lose weight.
         Nearly everyone thinks s/he needs to lose weight.

All these were quite awkward.  People simply began substituting "they" for the indefinite pronoun.

        Nearly everyone thinks they needs to lose weight.

Oops.  See what happened there?  People may use "they" as a singular pronoun, but are unlikely to pair it with a singular verb.  The current usage would be this.

        Nearly everyone thinks they need to lose weight.

This is where we are today.


The Washington Post report on its approval of the very occasional use of "they," "them" and "their" as singular words, drew several hundred comments, more than any other articles save those about sports and politics.  For certain people, pronouns are serious business.  A few comments follow below.


     --OK, here is your first complaint. "They" is a plural pronoun and using it in the singular is grammatically incorrect. If using "he" as the default singular pronoun offends you somehow or implies inferior status, get over it. In spite of what Americans seem to think, English is not the only language in common use in the world. Most other languages are more highly inflected, and use gender endings on nouns, verbs and pronouns. Those languages do not permit the terminally offended to tinker with constructions they might prefer. And, frequently people accustomed to those other languages don't understand pronouns that do not agree in number or gender. There. You have your complaint, and my 7th grade English teacher would be proud of me, and ashamed of you for even suggesting such a thing in a reputable newspaper.


     --Part of the problem stems from an overuse of the singular when the subject is easily a plural. A collective noun can easily call for "they" and always be correct if not common usage in this country.

     --I get your point, really I do, but there are plenty of contexts where this isn't the case.
If anyone can tell me, with a straight face, that, "Everyone should get his or her coat," sounds or reads better than, "Everyone should get their coats," then have at it. There are so many instances where we have "weird singulars" like "everyone" and "no one."
         "During the bombing, no one knew what would happen to their family," reads and sounds infinitely better to my eyes and ears than the more proper "his or her" for "their" does. These are the contexts where "they" and its variants as a singular simply fit. "They is" simply doesn't.


     --I teach at a two-year college, primarily English 101/102 composition courses. Student pronoun use is all over the place, shifting third-person singular and plural references while mixing in an assortment of first-person and second-person references randomly as well. . . .
        While I may be able to catch the gist of the student commentary, the precise meaning is not always so evident, and I usually end up drawing lines from pronoun to preceding pronoun, desperately seeking the antecedent noun. Like Captain Ahab, I find a lot of candidates, but the "white whale" is often deeply submerged under the jetsam and flotsam of garbled verbiage.
        Some recent student examples:

"Just because one follows social rules, it doesn't mean they are good." 
[Does the "they" refer to "one" or "social rules"?]

"Everyone has their own personal standards, even if they are not socially acceptable." 
[I see that the first "their" refers to "everyone." Does the "they" also refer to it or to "standards"?]


     --"His" means "his or her" when used with a noun of indeterminate gender. Using a plural pronoun just won't fly with logically-minded readers. The Post shouldn't allow political correctness to override clear writing.

     --It's not political correctness (whatever that means). It's simply affirming common practice as all language eventually does.

     --What he means by "political correctness" is he shouldn't be forced to be nice to queers. We should use manly American language and the gays should maybe un-gay themselves so we can talk normal.

     --Normally. Is that really what he meant? Wow.


     --Why should you be surprised that people object to the use of "they" as a singular pronoun? It is a mistake in number. Saying that it's acceptable is like saying that if we agree that two plus two equals five, then two plus two actually does equal five.


     --The idea that there is "immutable good or bad" as far as language style goes is to completely ignore linguistic history.
        There are things that are or are not preferred at a given point in time in a given language's development.
        You can't break or change rules without having knowledge of what those rules are, but every language rule can be changed and most have been over time. Most of that change has been directly driven by common usage, and since the primary purpose of language is to communicate meaning this is utterly unsurprising.
         Prescriptivists will never keep the upper hand - ever.


It seems that the singular "they," used always with a plural verb, is making its way into our language.  I find myself using it in speech sometimes, but have no trouble avoiding it when writing.  I feel a little sorry for students learning English as a second language, given all the quirks we keep adding to common usage.

One thing that does irritate me is the appropriation of "they" in situations when the antecedent is not human or animal.  I keep finding sentences like this one.

The city said they will not issue parking tickets during the snowstorm.

This use, too, may be subject to change.  If you watch English soccer games on television,  you will hear commenters (I don't get the word "commentator") saying things like this.

Manchester United are moving toward the goal.

 Later:  The New Pronouns

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