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Singular ‘they’ and dynamic language

July 14, 2018

Except for screaming at the talking heads on TV, I’ve kept quiet about it. I suppose I had hoped that it would just go away. But, it hasn’t. In fact, it’s spreading, multiplying, destroying hundreds of years of reason, sensibility, and logic. It’s an abomination, and it’s abominable. It’s the singular “they.”


You know what I’m writing about; don’t pretend that this is news to you. When we went to school and made a certain grammatical mistake, teacher would underline it and write “agreement” in the margin. Then, we’d read the sentence that we’d written: If a student wants to do well, they should study. We’d wonder, what’s not in agreement? You ought to study if you want to do well in school.


The bolder students would see the teacher after class and ask, “What does this ‘agreement’ mean?” Teacher would then place the point of a red pencil on the word “student” and say, “That’s a singular noun.” Then the pencil point would move to the word “they,” and teacher would say, “That’s a plural pronoun. The noun and pronoun must be in agreement.”


Remember that? Your parents remember. Your grandparents remember. So do your great grandparents, if they were lucky enough to go to school. If your ancestors were from Great Britain, spoke English, and were from very wealthy families, they were taught the same thing 300, 400, even 500 years ago. So, over time, our language metamorphosed.


Language dynamics


Language is dynamic. Most of us, including me, probably would not understand a sentence written in Middle English, our language as it was spoken between 1150 and 1500. Here is part of a 1371 epitaph from a monument at an Oxfordshire parish church:


man com & se how schal alle ded li.


Translation: Man, come and see how all dead men shall lie.


And further:


yis graue lys John ye smyth god yif his soule hewn grit.


Translation: Under this grave lies John the smith; God give his soul heavenly peace.


If we wind the clock back even further to the period when Old English was used, we’d find hardly any semblance to modern English. Here is an inscription from an archway to the grounds of the 10th century St. Mary’s parish church in Breamore, Hampshire:


Her swutelaô seo gecwydraednes ôe


Translation: Here is manifested the Word to thee.


Even when we wind the clock forward to the time when the Constitution of the United States was written, we find spellings and capitalization that differ from current practice. Here is the way that the original preamble was written in 1787:


“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.


Today, we would not capitalize Order, Union, Justice, Tranquility, Welfare, Blessings, Liberty, or Posterity. And we now spell the word that follows “common” in this way: defense.

Influencing change


For the past few decades, at least two innovations have been stimulating a transformation of our language. In historical sequence, the first was probably the computer; the second, political correctness. And, in both cases, I think that a change in the way that we think about things has been accompanied by the way we talk and write about them.


Computers not only added new words (bit, byte), but also new ways of thinking about things (reboot, Ethernet). Because computers process data as binary digits, a portmanteau (bit, for binary digit) developed, and a neologism (new word: byte) was introduced to indicate a series of eight binary digits (in the coding system used by IBM, 11000101 is the letter “E”).


Some changes, due to computerese, have worked their way into our language and have hardly been noticed by the general public. For example, a common wall switch used to read “On/Off.” Now, a switch that accomplishes the same end reads “l/0,” which most people refer to as an “I/O switch.” However, the notation on the switch is made up of the two binary digits, one and zero, with the “1” indicating an “on” position.


These changes are simply due to technological advances. The use of the singular “they,” however, is due to a reconstruction of our social awareness.

Political correctness


Many years ago, some people became conscious that a lot of our sentence constructions (and, perhaps, our ways of thinking) were male-oriented. When the late Elbert Stewart and I submitted our manuscript for a chapter on culture to our publisher, we started with a quotation from the 16th-17th century poet John Dunne:


No man is an island,


Entire of itself,


Every man is a piece of the continent,


A part of the main.


Our editor sent the manuscript out to a number of respected sociologists for pre-publication review. One critic crossed out the word “man” and wrote in “person.” Well, regardless of how one feels about being gender neutral, we can’t change the words Donne wrote. So, we picked a different quotation that made the same point.


Moreover, we were careful not to make the grammatical mistake with which I started today’s column. Relying on Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” which has been considered to be the “Bible” of language usage since its first appearance in the 1930s, we pluralized any nouns that would later be referenced by a pronoun. The authors recommended this tactic even though the “use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical. convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language.”


However, it is likely that the singular “they” is here to stay. Actually, it is a resurrection of the form that was used in the 14th century. Still, neither the Publication Manual of the APA nor the Chicago Manual of Style, two of the most widely accepted standards of English usage, has given expressed acceptance of the practice. But, the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook neither endorses nor disallows the use of the singular “they,” and this has been the most favorable official position on the topic so far.


However, even if all three sources were to accept this centuries-old use of the pronoun, I’d probably still be screaming at the news reporters on my television.


• • •


Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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