In case you’re joining us without having read last week’s column, or in case last week’s column has suffered the fate of last week’s emails and is buried under a pile of incoming data, we’ll review.
I’m giving a second look at a column from 2011 where I put on my English teacher badge and offered my views on the topic of singular “they.” That’s the much-debated change in popular usage that allows the pronoun “they” to stand for one person, in addition to its usual job of standing for two or more people. As in, “Everyone should bring their book to class.” I have never liked the trend and said so forcefully at the time, but my argument has not carried the day. The NIV Bible now uses singular “they,” and so does Miss Manners, the newspaper columnist who has been an expert on propriety for decades.
Shortly before leaving for Spring Break, I read the column in which she grudgingly accepted the reality of language change and told readers to get used to singular “they.” On the drive home, I was mentally preparing to throw in the towel and adjust how I graded essays. Not because of any newfound affection for singular “they,” but because I am tired. I have fought against it for 20 years. My red pen is running dry. A few hairs in my moustache have skipped grey and gone straight to white. As William Butler Yeats would put it, “Too long a sacrifice can make stone of the heart.”
But then the pandemic happened, and I had more time to think. I also read another “Miss Manners” column, where a reader wrote in to complain about an inconsiderate partner. I didn’t save the article, but I remember a sentence that went something like this: “My partner never puts their stuff away, never cleans their dishes, never lifts their feet from their spot on the sofa when I want to sit down, and never puts the cap back on their toothpaste when they are done brushing their teeth.”
Pandemics have a way of bringing out sarcasm, so for a brief moment I thought of saying to this writer, “That’s what you get when you mess with polygamy.” Because the sentence sure sounds like we are talking about a crowd of inconsiderate people. Then I rebuked myself and said, “This person has more important problems than pronouns.”
And yet, the sentence reminded me why I never liked “singular they.” It is like eating a Pop-Tart. One is fine; 10 will give you indigestion. Few, it seems, ever stop at one. The more the word “they” appears in a sentence about one single person, the more it sounds like, as I once put it, the writer has forgotten how to count.
So, instead of caving completely, I decided to propose a compromise. Yes, I may be sticking my finger in the dam one more time, but as a longtime professor of English, a lover of graceful writing and a weary soul, I have two announcements.
One: I will no longer correct the following sentence: “Every student should bring their book to class.” When the pronoun “they” is used only once in a sentence, to refer to a person of unspecified gender, I will submit. Granted, I still believe that a football teammate can safely be called “he,” and I still recommend that a social club sister be referred to as “she.” But the sparing use of singular “they” will no longer be struck from the sentence.
Two: I will most certainly not put up with bad writing. At worst, overuse of singular “they” is the result of pure sloppiness. But even when the writer purposefully chooses inclusion over elegance, I will insist that we can have both. There is no need to write “Each student should bring their book when it is their time to read out loud.” Plural nouns were invented for such a time as this.
I also will not encourage “one” as a substitute. If you write, “One must never forget one’s grammar when using one’s favorite pronoun,” you sound like an English butler.
Remember the sentence above about the inconsiderate partner? Read it again, and you’ll see why it needs to be taken out and shot. If you wish to save it, though, I suggest the following:
“My partner never puts anything away, never cleans the dishes, never leaves me room on the sofa, and never once has capped the toothpaste.”
One partner. One person with bad habits. One elegant sentence.
Now go, they, and do likewise.