Today’s column takes care of some unfinished pandemic business. Last March, as I drove home to Georgia for Spring Break, I composed part of this article in my head. Since the long drive crossed 500 miles — only 20 of which contain interesting scenery — I had plenty of time for thinking. So, I sputtered along, happily clicking those mental typewriter keys as I envisioned sharing new thoughts with my loyal “Bison” readers.
Alas, that was the last innocent day of 2020.
Yet despite all that has happened in the intervening months, I have not forgotten my previous (pre-virus) literary plans. I’d like to revisit a column I wrote nine years ago.
Titled “The Enemy is They,” the essay delivered my verdict on singular “they” — the now universal habit of using the plural pronoun “they” to refer to one person. Let me quote a couple of paragraphs to give you a sense of my thinking back then. I started with an imaginary dialogue:
“BILLY: ‘I heard that a new student just moved here.’
‘MARIA: ‘Great! If you have their phone number, I’ll call them and see if they want to come to the party.’ ”
“‘Bless her heart,’ I wrote. ‘Maria means well. You cannot fault her sense of camaraderie. Wanting to include new people is such a noble quality that one feels like a boorish fusspot for pointing out the breakdown in Maria’s grammar. But, alas, a breakdown it is. You see, in all her hospitable enthusiasm, Maria has forgotten how to count.’”
Back then, if you could make it past my smug condescension, you would find a perfectly sensible argument that the pronoun “they” properly refers to groups of people, while other options are available for referencing a single person. I gave a few examples of how to fix sentences that abused the pronoun. I thought that my reasonable case would win the day and that — at Harding at least — singular “they” would be abandoned and tossed onto the ash heap of ungrammatical history. O, the optimism of youth.
I would compare my brave manifesto to Custer’s Last Stand, but then I would be accused of cultural insensitivity. I would bring up the Battle of Thermopylae, but I would be accused of being obscure. I would make an analogy to the boy who stuck his finger in the dam, but I would be accused of cursing.
In short, no one listened to me, and singular “they” raged out of control.
Nine years have passed, during which I nobly carried the torch. When students wrote, “Everyone should bring their book,” I gently suggested “his or her book.” When confronted with a clunky sentence like this — “Each diner is allowed to eat all he or she can fit on his or her plate” — I calmly proposed that “diner” be changed to “diners” and that plural “they” be allowed to do the work that it was born to do. Sometimes, when I came across a claim such as, “Every mother needs their private space,” I wept. Surely “her” would fit most of the time.
Singular “they” has now become the proverbial swarm of locusts. You can stop one from invading the garden, but you cannot stop one hundred million. Plus, three key developments have happened since I first wrote my diatribe. First, in 2011 the translators of the NIV Bible revised its text to use gender-neutral language. In the years since, “they” has been championed as an inclusive, all-purpose pronoun for a complicated world. Second, grammarians have pointed out that no less a writer than William Shakespeare used singular “they.”
Of course, Shakespeare also had a character kill two men, bake them into a pie and feed them to their father. The grammarians seldom bring that up.
But now, even “Miss Manners” has caved. Judith Martin — the prim, elegantly coiffed expert on etiquette — has been dispensing advice on social graces, wedding invitations and what colors to wear after Labor Day for years. She is known for her old-fashioned common sense and her pithy solutions to the problems we all have in deciding how to behave appropriately. One of my favorite Miss Manners quotes is, “If you can’t be kind, at least be vague.”
And in one of her newspaper columns earlier this year, the expert on graciousness embraced reality and advised readers to get used to singular “they,” as it has “taken hold.” In that one simple phrase, she bestowed her blessing on the brave new world. It suddenly occurred to me that once you’ve lost Miss Manners, the battle is over. I could argue with the Bible translators and the grammarians, but the Queen of Conduct reigns supreme. A man must admit when their goose is cooked (To be continued).