Friday, November 6, 2009

Singular they

I have long disliked the use of singular they, partly because I associate it with banality (“Each person has their own ideas”), and partly because I find in he or she a still appropriate rejoinder to the language of patriarchy that permeated my undergraduate education. My first undergraduate philosophy course: “The Problem of Man.” The professor was a woman. A key text: William Barrett’s Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1958). And then there was William Faulkner: “Man will not merely endure; he will prevail.” Man oh man. I like humankind.

And I like he or she, while acknowledging that my insistence upon using these pronouns often leads me to recast sentences to avoid the clutter of too many he or she, his or her, him or her pairs. But in appropriate circumstances, he or she is far better than singular they. Consider these sentences, from a 2008 post, Reliving our learning:

Does the student bring to the task a history of accomplishment that fosters confidence in the face of difficulties? Or does he or she relive a history of failure and near-failure that fosters a hopeless fatalism?
Try it with singular they
Does the student bring to the task a history of accomplishment that fosters confidence in the face of difficulties? Or do they relive a history of failure and near-failure that fosters a hopeless fatalism?
— and the passage’s parallelism looks and sounds dumb. I like he or she.

Still, I found myself yesterday realizing that I can make a little room in my life for singular they, seeing as I had already made such room without realizing it. Earlier this week, I gave a class a few pages from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to read. Here’s a passage from a page of questions and context-setting that I wrote to accompany the reading:
This excerpt is from one the novel’s greatest scenes, the Bal des têtes [masked ball]. The narrator, who has been away from society for many years because of long illnesses and hospital stays, is attending a party, sometime after the end of the Great War (which we know now as World War I). Upon entering, he thinks he’s attending a costume party and that everyone has been made up to look old. And then he realizes: no, they are old.
The singular they in the final sentence seems entirely appropriate, entirely reasonable. “And he then begins to realize: no, he or she is old” makes, of course, no sense. Thus singular they found a way to make me rethink a pretty firm habit. Pretty wily of them.

In 2003, the Vocabula Review published a long essay by Joan Taber Altieri, “Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold.“ If it weren’t behind a firewall, I’d be linking to it now.

Update, April 21, 2010: The essay has been online for years, just not at the Vocabula Review.

[Note: Changing everyone to the guests in the Proust example would make they plural and make everyone happy. What interests me here is that I used singular they without thinking of it as a mistake.]

comments: 2

Matthew W. Schmeer said...

Like you, I prefer to recast the sentence if the use of he or she makes the sentence unwieldy when the antecedent is a singular noun of unknown gender. However, I have no problem with singular they when paired with a collective noun such as everyone. Sometimes common usage trumps my Hodges' Harbrace, and besides, sometimes we harp on correctness over clarity.

Benjo said...

In my days as an editor with a large children's book publisher, the company's official style manual allowed the use of they as a singular. Which was a godsend, because all in-classroom materials needed to be scored by a computer for readability, and he or she added two words to any sentence in which it appeared, often pushing the readability rating out of bounds.

I think the problems with both the ambiguity of they and the wordiness of he or she could be solved if we simply allowed ourselves, when using they in the singular, to conjugate verbs accordingly: "If someone uses they as a singular, they is all right with me."