Several years ago we crossed the lexicographic Rubicon as Merriam-Webster gave literally the same definition as figuratively. Outrage by language purists understandably followed. Responses from pundits to Merriam-Webster’s pronouncement were, uh, uncharitable:
“Our poor language, I’m figuratively about to hurl.”
“Definition 2: the dictionary is literally wrong.”
“This is literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.”
“I literally can’t even.”
It’s not our fault, argued Merriam-Webster, as there is “a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog language as it is used.” Given the carelessness of the average American English speaker, what can we do? (They seemed to say.) Given that half the population is, by definition, below average American English speakers, this did not bode well, and, no surprise, here we are.
So, in another sign of the impending lingual apocalypse, the widespread use of they as a singular has taken hold. The reasoning seems to be more political and perhaps more well-intentioned than the plain ignorance that preceded the literally/figuratively disaster, but the wrong path is the wrong path regardless. I’m here to shout into the wind once again.
To give some idea of where we’re heading (or arrived at, depending on your point of view), here’s a Tweet from the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon presumably attempting to prove just how “woke” they are:
Now we frequently use they as a singular in spoken English when gender is indeterminate because it’s more relaxed and conversational. Particularly compared to repeated use of “he/she” or “he or she”—neither of which exactly roll off the tongue—they fills an empty grammatical space in English in this context. It may be grammatically inaccurate, but it’s convenient shorthand. It’s not hard to see how they went from mission creep to radical redefinition.
We should talk about he before proceeding. The argument of previous generations that he should be used in cases of indefinite gender—and you will certainly see he in older writing—has fallen out of favor for the same reason humankind has replaced mankind: The notion that a word might have a secondary meaning or definition depending on context seems one step too far for today’s audiences, many of whom are eager to combat sexism, real or imagined.
Which is not to say that he should have been retained as the default pronoun in cases of indeterminate gender. It’s just not the slam-dunk to me that critics might make it out to be.
“Greatness is available to anyone; he only need try.”
Is it not obvious that he refers to all of humanity? I would argue it is, especially given English’s history. Does the sentence still work if we replace the he with she? I would also say that it does, but slightly less well since until very recently English didn’t have a history of using feminine pronouns to mean the universal. But I get the argument. To use he here is to define she in relation to he and perhaps only that. Still, I pity the person who thinks “this is one giant leap for mankind” excludes anyone.
“Greatness is available to anyone; they only need try.”
Heretofore this they would be considered grammatically incorrect in formal writing, and while I don’t consider this much of a step forward, I understand that some women felt excluded by he. Do I think it’s picking at nits? I think I’ve made it clear that I do. But I’m not the one feeling excluded, so what do I know? I still think he is fine, but so is they for the singular in cases of indeterminate gender when we refer to the universal. This is not a hill I’m going to die on.
I have a hill I will die on: It is that language should allow us to communicate well. I need to get the ideas in my head communicated to you and vice versa with as little confusion and imprecision as possible. You can hate those ideas (and I can hate yours), but I need to be able to express them in a way that you can understand. Changes to language that further this goal should be applauded andadopted.
This is why the usage promulgated by the school district rankles. It’s an educational organization, and it’s using language in a way that muddies the waters. The problem specifically: they can function as a singular (see above), but sometimes we need it to delineate singular versus plural—to operate as a distinct word apart from he or she that connotes number.
My argument is not at present extraordinary—but check back in a few years and be amazed—because it’s roughly how we’ve used the English language for decades or longer: If we know gender, we should use it. If we know number—which is to say one or more than one—we should indicate it. A singular man or boy would be he. A singular woman or girl would be she. A singular person of indeterminate gender has historically been he. Multiple people of whatever gender (or even non-gender specific) would be they.
English doesn’t have an indefinite gender third person singular pronoun that is widely accepted because it is deemed dehumanizing. It works as a replacement—try it in the school district’s examples—but you can hear the problem. It sounds like as much an object as a person.
As a result, ze is gaining popularity. In fact, I’m much more onboard the ze train than I’ve ever been, because it’s absolutely clear to me that they is already overburdened, something made obvious by the school district’s examples. Look at the comparative interpretations:
“They went downstairs in the morning.”
School district: One or more people went downstairs in the morning.
Me: More than one person went downstairs in the morning.
“I made them breakfast.”
School district: I made one or more people breakfast.
Me: I made more than one person breakfast.
“They poured themself a drink.”
School district: One or more people poured one or more people a drink.
Me: What is wrong with you? You’re a school district, for God’s sake. What’s happening to education in this country?
“They enjoyed their meal.”
School district: One or more people enjoyed their meal.
Me: More than one person enjoyed their meal.
Using they as a singular not only eliminates are ability to tell gender—which some consider an improvement but I do not—it also leaves us unable to tell number, which nobody should consider an improvement. They has a function here: To indicate that more than one person is being referenced.
To me, the most compelling counterargument is that each individual has a right to name themselves, to determine what they (see what I did there?) are to be called. This is a big issue in the trans and non-binary communities for obvious reasons, but it’s a right that extends to all of us. Our parents may have named us initially, but each of us gets to decide what we are to be called.1 (Within reason. If you want to be called “Hitler” or anything else offensive, good luck.)
What we don’t get to do is to force our own specialized pronoun preferences upon others, particularly when the results are a less precise language. If you were named Steve by your parents but today want to be called Sheila, I can respect that (as a matter of common courtesy if nothing else). What you don’t get to do is to tell me what pronouns to use (or verbs or nouns or adjectives).
First, I’m not going to use third-person pronouns for you in your presence. As a matter of conversation, they will never come up unless we all start talking about ourselves in the third-person.
Second, one only need run the thought experiment of universalizing this behavior to see what a mess it would create. If everyone insists on their own pronouns—I have a hard enough time remembering most people’s names—communication will grind to a halt every time we try to talk. I have already seen this firsthand multiple times—no thought experiment—and it’s unworkably ridiculous. The verbal contortions and mental processing required when someone just wants to say a couple sentences are truly something to behold. Whatever the word is—no doubt the Germans have one—that means simultaneously funny and sad, well, that’s the spectacle that one witnesses.
Third, there is a limit to how much communicators control their message. Communication is a two-way street, and the other party gets a say as well. In other words, a person can state whatever preferences he likes (“This thing you know as a chair? I want you to call it a tank.”), but don’t expect me to go along for the ride. Just as you’re free to tell that a chair is a tank, I’m free to ignore that and think you a lunatic. There is an underlying level of manipulation to this—a “you must see the world as I see it regardless of any norms of language or history”—that is as deeply problematic as it is political. I’m not going to dive into the gender wars any more than I have to here, but on some level it’s unavoidable: The only reason they, ze, it, etc. is an issue at all is because some people want pronouns to not identify gender.
To that, I say that pronouns should if they can. Lack of specificity helps no one, unless that is your goal, in which case I’m sure my take appears particularly curmudgeonly.
Human beings are both creative and interesting, and we need to add new words to language to describe things and to modify existing words to add meaning. That is an important part in the advancement of humanity. What’s far less useful is diluting or devolving language to render it less precise or to imbue it with less meaning. That helps no one.