Singular They Isn’t New — more adventures in dictionaries
“Fake Rule: The generic pronoun in English is he.
Violation: “Each one in turn reads their piece aloud.”
This is wrong, say the grammar bullies, because each one, each person is a singular noun and their is a plural pronoun. But Shakespeare used their with words such as everybody, anybody, a person, and so we all do when we’re talking. (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses,” said George Bernard Shaw.) The grammarians started telling us it was incorrect along in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. That was when they also declared that the pronoun he includes both sexes, as in “If a person needs an abortion, he should be required to tell his parents.” My use of their is socially motivated and, if you like, politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislators enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts. I consistently break a rule I consider to be not only fake but pernicious. I know what I’m doing and why.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
I included the above quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent book on writing in my tribute to Le Guin last week. It’s a quote I’ve been meaning to use in a blog post about fake grammar rules for a while, and now seems like a good time.
There are rules of grammar and learning them is important. However, it is also important to recognize that not everything someone tells you is a rule actually is. There are a number of so-called grammar rules that people have been passing down from generation to generation in schools, writers’ groups, and so on that simply are wrong. Some of them are due to a misunderstanding that has become common enough that people adopt it as a rule. Others have been the result of a small group of Latin scholars attempting to force a convention from the Latin language on to English out of a belief that Latin is somehow a purer language.
Others are a bit more complicated.
English pronouns are such a case. It wasn’t that many centuries ago that people had to keep track of more pronouns. The King James Version of the Bible was translated during a time when English speakers used thee, thou, you, ye, they, thine, their, and so forth. There were circumstances where it was incorrect to address someone as you rather than thou, and it generally came down to your social relationship. You use thou when addressing someone who was socially inferior, and you the other way around. This wasn’t just about class. Parents would use thou when talking to their children, for example, and children would use you when addressing parents and so forth. One also used thou for people with whom you were intimate—and I’m not talking about sex, this would be with close friends and so forth (though also one’s fiance or spouse would be appropriate, obviously).
Thee was the objective form of thou—this is parallel to the distinction between me and I which still exists in the language today. Ye was the plural form of you.
So what happened to all of those extra pronouns? We slowly stopped using them. Thou starting going away in the 17th and 18th Century in London as changing socio-economical norms started making it harder to tell which social class people were in. You didn’t want to offend someone who ought to be addressed as you by saying thou! I mention London specifically because etymologists have tracked where and when thou fell out of usage. There are regional dialects in England today where thou is still used, and they all occur in corners of the nation furthest from London.
Now let’s look at they. Lots of people object to using the singular they. It comes up frequently now because as transgender, genderfluid, and nonbinary people embrace their identities some ask us to use different pronouns. A transgender person who was assigned male at birth may ask their friends, family, and acquaintances to stop using he/him/his and start using she/her/hers, for instance. And some people aren’t comfortable with either of those and ask us to they/them/their. This makes some other people uncomfortable.
It makes some people so uncomfortable that they post rants about it on their academic blogs, railing against the singular they in one paragraph, and hilariously using a singular they in another.
The truth is, they has been both singular and plural for at least 675 years. That’s how long ago dictionaries have found samples of they being used in both the singular and the plural. Merriam-Webster cites examples from Chaucer (14th Century), Shakespeare (17th Century), Jane Austen (18th Century), Lord Byron (18th and 19th Century), and the King James Bible (17th Century) of the singular they.
So the first answer to people citing this rule is to inform them it isn’t a rule of English grammar and never has been.
The second is to point to that history of the decline of thou in favor of you. An entire language shifted because people didn’t want to accidentally offend each other. In other words, there is a precedent for adapting English usage to accommodate our mutual sensibilities.
And finally, the third answer is that after being informed of the above two facts, anyone who continues to raise a fuss about using the singular they to refer to someone after being asked to use it is doing so out of a feeling of discomfort due to bigotry. And none of the rest of us are under any obligation to put up with bigoted jerks.
Or, as someone else put it:
This modern world is full of quandaries and conundra, isn’t it? On the one hand, you have human people with human feelings, and on the other hand, you have an entirely insentient entity, the English language, which is wholly incapable of being hurt or offended in any way. Obviously you don’t want to upset either camp, but which do you prioritize? Living, breathing people — members of a systemically and institutionally marginalized minority — who have specifically identified the pronouns that people like you are to use for them so as to avoid causing the exact kind of offense that you profess to be concerned about committing? Or a theoretical concept that not only has no way of knowing whether you’ve used it incorrectly but in fact changes so rapidly that the notion of “correct” is functionally moot anyway, not to mention that being preoccupied with particular grammatical usages signals not a deep concern for linguistic propriety but is instead a probably classist and very likely racist and almost certainly ableist approach to human communication? You’re in a mighty fucking pickle, here!
—Bad Advice On Grammar-Policing Gender-Neutral Pronouns via The Establishment