Singular they

I see via a Geoffrey Pullum Language Log post that yet another otherwise intelligent person—this time David Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor—has been found ranting in public about the imminent destruction of the English language due to folks using they as a singular pronoun.

Pullum does his usual fine job highlighting the absurdities of this kind of rant: in this case the wild disparity between the magnitude of the social devastation allegedly being wrought and the venality of the linguistic sins, if any, being committed. Pullum—co-author of the massive and comprehensive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language—also points out that Gelernter is simply wrong about many points of grammar and historical linguistics. Pullum, however, doesn’t really take Gelernter’s argument seriously, presumably because it’s absurd and ignorant and doesn’t deserve to be. On the other hand, Gelernter’s rant is such a fine example of an anti-singular they diatribe, that it merits a closer analysis.

Gelernter’s thesis is that “the English language has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Academic-Industrial Complex”. In particular he claims “feminist authorities” effected a significant change to the rules of grammar such that “agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional” allowing they to be used as a singular pronoun. As Pullum and regular Language Log readers of course know, this claim is deliciously ironic. The last time the Academic-Industrial Complex unilaterally changed the rules of grammar was in the 18th century, when grammarians, taking a bit too much of a cue from Latin, made up a rule that pronouns had to agree in number with their antecedents, a “rule” which, in fact, had been regularly violated by such writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen to say nothing of thousands of less notable authors and, no doubt, hundreds of thousands of plain old native English speakers.

Having made up their rule, these grammarians were then forced to choose a singular pronoun to use with indefinite antecedents (e.g. everyone, nobody) and singular nouns that could refer to a person of either gender (e.g. a person). Given the times and the fact that the grammarians were mostly men, the “natural” solution was to use he, his, and him. But one must wonder whether sentences like, “A grammarian should always keep his inkwell full”, sounded natural to an 18th-century grammarian because he really felt his was gender neutral or because he was envisioning a grammarian much like himself and all the other grammarians he knew who was, of course, also a “him”. Hard to say. I don’t have any 18th-century grammarians’ writings at hand but Gelernter gives up the game a bit with this sentence: “Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose?” Surely that should be “elbow his way”.

Of course we’ve come a long way since the 18th century. Now that grammarians really are as likely to be women as men, maybe it’s silly to get hung up on gender-neutral he. On the other hand it’s also worth considering how recently we’ve really made progress on that front. Gelernter is full of praise for Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (excepting editions published since E.B. White’s death, which have softened the guide’s position on the absolute correctness of the gender-neutral he and are thus “a disgrace to his memory”.) But, as Pullum pointed out in a 2004 Language Log posting, when Strunk was passing along the rule that singular they should be changed to he, women in the United States still didn’t have the vote. And when E.B. White wrote about Strunk’s “little book” in his “Letter from the East” for the July 27, 1957 New Yorker that essay—which later became the introduction to White’s revision of the guide—appeared next to an advertisement with this text: “Traveling men get juicy steaks on ‘The Executives’—United’s for-men-only nonstops to Chicago.”

Gelernter does, however, inadvertently if somewhat belligerently, get to the real point of the singular-they debate when he asks: “Why should I worry about feminist ideology while I write? Why should I worry about anyone’s ideology? Writing is a tricky business that requires one’s whole concentration, as any professional will tell you; as no doubt you know anyway.” Yes, writing is a tricky business. Largely because it’s about communicating with other human beings. Unlike computer programming, where a deterministic and strictly logical computer is the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of your creation, writing is about conveying thoughts from your mind to that of your reader, a process that is neither deterministic nor entirely logical. For better or worse, readers can be thrown for a loop by clumsy diction, abstruse vocabulary, or violation of what they consider norms, whether grammatical or social. The harsh reality of a writer’s life is that some readers will be jolted out of their concentration by a singular they while others, who would have glided right past it, will trip over a gender-neutral he.1 There’s no good way out of this mess, at least in the short term. I do believe that for Gelernter, and for many others, sentences using a singular they really do “skreak like fingernails on a blackboard.” That they do so for silly, historical reasons is no consolation. (That Gelernter considers them evidince that feminism is destroying the possibility of rational thought is, however, just stupid.) On the other hand, I’m quite certain that singular they will prevail in the long run. It was standard usage long before the 18th-century grammarians put their oar in and it is even more attractive now for people who wish to avoid implying that executives and grammarians are always men. It also follows the pattern set when the plural pronoun you drove out the singular thou.

So I do my part by using singular they in my own writing. And any writer who wants to reclaim the English language from the dead hand of the 18th-century Academic-Industrial Complex, well, they should do likewise.


1. And some of us will be distracted by both, noting both singular theys and gender-neutral hes as instances of a writerly choice.

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