They Say You Should Break This Grammar Rule
Yesterday, I got into a bit of a discussion in the comments section over the use of the singular “they.” People go into a frenzy whenever you use it, and when you challenge the rule, they cling to it as if their very position in the American Society of Grammar Pedants depended upon it.
Let me make my position clear: In situations with a generic singular antecedent, "they" is not OK. It is preferable. The attempted abolition of singular "they" was a hypercolossal blunder by 18th- and 19th-century fusspots who thought grammar should follow the same sort of simple rules as a steam engine, that Latin and Greek grammars were a good model for English diction, and that in public-facing activity, men absorbed the women in their circle like a sort of social sponge. We should stop perpetuating their error. We should rip this rule from our grammar texts and obliterate it from our stylebooks. We should fling it down and dance upon it.
Consider the reasons that we are supposed to oppose singular “they”:
- Historically, this is how we have always done it, and people are now trying to change it because of some absurd PC supposition that this will fix sexism. In fact, singular “they” has a very long history -- much longer than the rule against it. I reached out to my former colleague Robert Lane Greene, who, in addition to being a splendid writer himself, is also a bit of a language expert. He pointed out that early grammarians might have been overly influenced by Greek and Latin grammars, because there was no English grammar, so there was a tendency to support rules that made sense in Latin but not in English. (Such as “Don’t split an infinitive,” which is absolute nonsense in English but makes sense in Latin: Latin infinitives are one word and can’t be split.) Many Latin languages use “he” for the generic singular, which is fine for them. But in English, singular “they” has a long and storied history as recent as this week. Singular “they” is, after all, what all of you, including almost all the grammar pedants, use in conversation. We are trying to make written English conform to a rule that no one would ever use in spoken English. That’s silly and it should stop.
- It’s illogical. Sure, but so is much of the English language. English is a bastard tongue that, in the words of James Nicoll, not only borrows words from other languages, but also “has on occasion chased other languages down dark alley-ways, clubbed them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary." Half the verbs and a surprising number of nouns are irregular. No human language follows the hard-and-fast rules of a computer program; complaining that they don't is like complaining that your Thanksgiving dinner guests refuse to adhere to "Robert's Rules of Order."
- It’s ambiguous. Theoretically, yes, you can construct a sentence in which it’s unclear which noun in the sentence “they” or “their” refers to.
But as Greene points out, it’s actually not that easy to come up with one. And in the real world, sentences are surrounded by other sentences, which will almost always remove any lingering question. Moreover, “avoid ambiguity” is itself a longtime, and very excellent, rule of good writing. If your antecedent is unclear, then you should rewrite the sentence -- to get rid of the ambiguity, not continue this senseless war against singular “they.”
However, if you continue to insist that, OK, it was a dumb rule when it was introduced, but this is how we do things now, let me point out some problems with this rule:
- It forces the writers of English into clumsy constructions. We have another rule now: “Don’t treat men as the default.” Treating men as the default causes actual problems that feminists are quite right to fight; you end up designing all sorts of things, from workplaces to medical research, for only half the population. (For example, heart attacks may present very differently in women, but for a long time, the guidelines for deciding whether you might be having a heart attack described the typical male pattern.) That has extended to a ban on using “he” for the generic singular. Maybe you don’t like this rule, maybe it was a bad rule when we made it, but, as you’ve been saying, “this is how we do it now.” This forces writers to spend an absurd amount of time writing the ungainly “he or she” or metronomically alternating between gendered pronouns like a parent trying to prove that they don’t have a favorite kid. This wastes time, and it’s jarring to read.
- It’s illogical. It’s a fact of life that the world is going to end up designed, to a greater or lesser extent, by the majority. I experience this sad fact every day as a 6’2" woman who finds it hard to locate clothes, airline seats or countertops that fit her stature. Here’s the funny thing, though: Men aren't the majority. There are more women than men in the United States and in the rest of the developed world. If you are going to pick one gender for the generic, based not at all upon sexism but simply from an altruistic desire to minimize confusion, then it seems pretty clear that gender would be female. So any way you cut it, generic “he” is wrong.
I’m not against grammar rules. Many rules are necessary to let writer and reader communicate more effectively. This, however, is not one of those rules. Tear down the cruel prison walls of prescriptivism. Discard the chains of senseless legalism. Let the singular “they” once again roam the verdant plains of our nation’s literature.
You see what I did there? That’s right: another stupid rule. In the words of Winston Churchill, “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at firstname.lastname@example.org
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