Saturday, January 9, 2016

One Word of the Year: singular they

The American Dialect Society has chosen singular they as its 2015 Word of the Year. I like the idea of a plainish Word of the Year. I like too the idea of a Word of the Year that’s a word, not an emoji — which is what Oxford Dictionaries chose as its 2015 Word of the Year. (Clickbait might have been a more honest choice.)

My thoughts about singular they are in two posts: this post and this other one, over here. I continue to think that singular they is sometimes a good choice in writing, and sometimes not a good choice at all. I used singular they in a recent post, where it seemed idiomatic and appropriately colloquial: “Who in their right mind,” &c. But the more formal the discourse, the less appropriate singular they becomes, at least without checking in advance.

comments: 9

Daughter Number Three said...

One argument against "he/she" (and its variants) is that it reinforces the gender binary. Everyone is not a he or a she. A gender-neutral pronoun, which "they" has become, allows for all possibilities.

That said, I tend to get hung up on the lack of agreement when "they" is supposed to be singular (why not "they is" if it's truly singular?). But my daughter pointed out that "you" is both singular and plural but takes the plural verb form, and we think nothing of it. So that pretty much convinced me.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, the ADS placed special emphasis on they as “as an identifier for someone who may identify as ‘non-binary’ in gender terms.” In the past year, I’ve seen more attention to ze and hir and the honorific Mx. I think a new set of singular pronouns would offer greater clarity than they. For instance, Frank said they’d be over later : Frank alone, or Frank and one or more other people? I think the reflexive themselves is another problem: Frank said they’d drive themselves over later .

If I were not a he and were making this kind of decision for myself, I’d choose singular pronouns.

Fresca said...

Oh, fun!
It's so much easier in writing, when there's time to choose an alternative.
I used to use s/he, which I think is kind of nicely non-binary (both/and/either--though it doesn't encompass "neither" like "they" does.)

(Remember French writer Monique Wittig wrote "J/e" (I think it was translated a "I/") because "Je" (I) is automatically deciphered by the reader as male? I think that's kind of fun to think about too.)

Speech gets trickier---a friend who works in a non-binaryish-friendly workplace tells me some people say "they" as a singular pronoun, which, she says, can get confusing when a person gestures to a group of other people and says, "They will help you"--meaning one of them, but which one? (Need to add shirt color or something.)
I will ask her how the verb agreement goes, when "they" is spoken...
(Do you know?)

Michael Leddy said...

“Do you know?”

No, and I’d love to know the response. In the situation you describe, I’d go for the person’s name: “Frank will help you.” Or “Frank, in the blue shirt, will help you.”

How’d I latch onto Frank? We watched Angel Face last night — Robert Mitchum (Frank) and Jean Simmons (Diane).

Frex said...

I'd have to go for "Jeff" for my nonbinary name.
Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, you know...

"Jeff, in the trenchcoat, will help you." (But it might be better not to ask they.)

I'll let you know what my friend says about verb agreement with the spoken "they".

Frex said...


Daughter Number Three said...

I know people who prefer their name to be used instead of any pronoun, but accept "they" as a secondary choice.

Fresca said...

OK, I asked my young friend, and she looked at me in disdain and said of course the verb agrees with the plural pronoun, even though you're using it to refer to one person--it would sound weird if it didn't.
[How quickly what sounds "weird" changes.]

For instance:
"Oh, look, there's Chris---the one in the purple shirt--they are going to help you restock the produce..."

Michael Leddy said...

That sentence sounds kinda plausible. But say, “They are a student who works hard” — I think the potential for awkward constructions is great. But to each her or his or their own pronoun.

“Mitchum” itself sounds to me like a good non-binary name.