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Sin boldly

Attendance was down slightly at Memorial Episcopal this morning, but I do not attribute that to the possibility that part of the congregation has been lifted into the clouds in Harold Camping’s latest foretold Rapture. So, while we’re still waiting for the Parousia, let’s get back to grammar.

Arrant Pedantry, which we can congratulate for having just placed third in’s contest for Best Grammar Blog of 2011, suggested last week that we should act on what we know to be the case rather than cravenly cater to the Assertionists.

Writing about they used as a gender-neutral singular, he covered some familiar territory. The usage is centuries old and has survived despite the strictures of eighteenth-century grammarians and their descendants. English has accepted you as a singular, even though it was previously only a plural. The he-and-she construction is clumsy. All previous efforts to coin a gender-neutral singular have failed. Etc., etc.

Then his charge to those of use who count ourselves as reasonable prescriptivists:

Rather than join the ranks of grammarians who walk through all the arguments in favor of singular they but then throw their hands up in defeat and tell you to avoid it because it’s not accepted yet, I’m taking a different track and recommending its use. The problem with not using it until it becomes accepted is that it won’t become accepted until enough people—especially people with some authority in the field of usage—use it and say it’s okay to use it. If we sit around waiting for the day when it’s declared to be acceptable, we’ll be waiting a long time. But while there are still people who will decry it as an error, as I’ve said before, you can’t please everyone. ... I think it’s the best solution for a common problem, and it’s time to stop wringing our hands over it and embrace it.

This makes sense. When I’m on the plant floor down at the paragraph factory, I no longer recast the everyone ... they sentences, and I have occasionally used the singular they in these operations. It’s instructive, particularly given how quickly readers are prepared to swoop down on errors (or perceived errors) and brandish them, that no one ever writes anymore to complain about a singular they.

The hour has arrived—not of the Rapture, but of acceptance of singular they. Go with it.*


*Yes, I realize that some fussbudget on your dissertation committee is going to demand that you kowtow to what he thinks is a Rule. But I am talking about what you should do in writing that is meant to be read.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:56 PM | | Comments (6)


The primary justification given for avoiding certain words or constructions is that readers will object to it, and we don't want to offend readers. The fact that you don't get angry letters about singular "they" anymore is very encouraging.

So if I say there's someone at the door, do I still say, "who is it?" or must I switch to "Who is they?" Will that lead to "It's the letter carrier, and they is angry" ? Singular "they" has some work to do before it can fit in perfectly.

Anyway, singular "they" is just the first step into removing entirely the distinction between singular and plural.

It's starting with "there is" vs, "there are," just in the last few years. Is there any questions? There's sixty people who disagree.

In every one of your cases, Tim, there is an existing, appropriate, and accepted singular pronoun. Why change?

As John said, the singular 'they' works for those constructions where there are no good gender-neutral alternatives beyond "he or she".

If a person wants to be taken seriously, they shouldn't set up ridiculous straw men so easily knocked down.

John, I snuck off to the farmer's market, and haven't been to church, in about a month of Sundays (but maybe teaching sunday school counts double). I agree with you non this one, but I think the lack of a unambiguous 2nd person plural is the biggest flaw of the English language. Having lived in the south, I favor you all, but there are other workarounds. What is your stance on this?

Tim: First of all, nobody said you "must switch" to anything. Second, no native English speaker says or would say, "Who is they?" or "They is angry," and I think you're quite well aware of that. Singular "they" already fits in quite well and has done so for the last five hundred years or more.

And saying that this is "just the first step into removing entirely the distinction between singular and plural" is a slippery slope argument. You're talking about two very specialized constructions, both of which have solid grammatical motivations, and neither or which points to a general loss of plural marking in English.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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