'They' wins again, your majesty.

Get Thee to a 17th-Century Dictionary

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I've heard from a number of people who continue to protest the use of "plural" they to refer to a singular but generic third person. "You can't use a plural for the singular," these people protest. "It's just not correct." And after long thought, I have a message for each of my interlocutors: Thou hast convinced me.

Using a plural pronoun to include the singular is clearly messy. When a boss looks at his employees and says, "You need to clean out the breakroom," is he proposing a group cleanup or targeting his remarks to the janitor? When a religious studies class is discussing the differences between various religions, and someone asks a Muslim classmate "What's your biggest holiday?" is he asking for a personal favorite, or is it a theological question? When a public speaker responds to a question by saying "You should call your mother," is he suggesting a general duty or a specific task for the questioner?

It is true that this ambiguity is rarely actually confusing in the context of a broader conversation or written paragraph. But why brook any confusion at all when we have a perfectly good second-person singular, ratified by long tradition and use? Why should we be stripped of our singular by a bunch of 17th-century London toffs who inexplicably dropped a perfectly good pronoun, then used their political power to force their grotesque usage upon the rest of the British Isles and the proud colonies that eventually became the United States of America?

People will tell thee that they do not need a second-person singular; I tell thee that this is a bald-faced lie. If a distinction between singular and plural is not needed, then why are so many citizens forced to jury-rig one out of "you all," "you ones" or "youse guys"? Thou wilt surely see the tragic injustice of forcing our impoverished citizens to make their own plurals out of whatever they can find on the street, rather than allowing them to tap into the rich storehouse of singular second-person pronouns that we have available right here in our own language.

It is time to reclaim our heritage. I beg thee to join me in stomping out the execrable, inexcusable use of the plural "you" to refer to singular antecedents. Restore "thou," "thee" and "thy" to their rightful place in the English language.

Art thou with me? Yes, of course thou art. I knew thou couldst not allow this perfidious state of affairs to continue.

Now, as we make our case to the public, thou wilt hear people say that "you" is not just the plural, but also the formal, and that by getting rid of "thou," we were not collapsing plural into singular, but rather offering everyone from servant to king the same polite deference. However, in a society in which thy waiter begins the meal by offering his first name and will chummily address thee by thine own given name if he can manage to glean it from the dinnertime conversation, I do not think that thou and I can be expected to take this objection seriously.

Too, people will tell thee that there is no need of a change, because using the plural form is not meant to be insulting to single people; it is simply a harmless carryover from an era when most adults were married. It will not fix any of the problems that single people face in our society, but rather distract from important causes, such as reforming the tax code. Be wary here; thou must not let thyself get tangled up in pointless side arguments over whether "you" is, or is not, insulting to single people, or whether changing it will also result in tax reform. This is not the point of our quest. We seek change not for political purposes, but because we understand that this pesky use of a plural pronoun is ambiguous, illogical and unnecessary.

These will not be the only objections we will face, to be sure. I cannot imagine all the silly things people will argue, and neither can thee. But do not lose heart. They have numbers on their side, but we have unshakeable logic.

We will not have an easy time of it, thee and me. But I believe that we can prevail if we hew to the words of Theodore Roosevelt: "Keep thy eyes on the stars, and thy feet on the ground."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net