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Who's lazy now?

Yesterday I suggested that the singular they (shorthand for they as a gender-neutral pronoun following a singular or plural antecedent, as in “Everyone should bring their books to class”) should be accepted in general use without cavil.

Today the Writing Centre at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, tweeting as @SMUWritCentre, presents its reasoned response: “Using the singular 'they' means you're not trying, you don't know grammar rules, or you're lazy.”

Readers of this blog can pick the category into which I best fit. Meanwhile, I think I’ll give a try at characterizing St. Mary’s University Writing Centre.

Someone operating a writing tutorial for undergraduates might, you’d think, show some awareness of the context in which the singular they has been discussed at length. But it appears that linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum and his colleagues at Language Log, or the authors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, are such sketchy characters that their views merit no consideration. Or that even a prescriptivist like Bryan Garner, who explains that the usage has become common because “[i]t is the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language—the generic masculine pronoun,” cuts no ice at St. Mary’s Writing Centre.

You might think that at a university some importance would be placed on consulting authorities and weighing evidence. But not at St. Mary’s Writing Centre, where, if you possess Received Truth about The Rules, there is no need to bandy words with the ignorant and the lazy.

That the teaching of grammar and usage, when it is done at all in the schools and universities, has degenerated into promulgating a set of traditional, uninformed oversimplifications explains a lot about the limited writing skills of their graduates. These same institutions of learning appear to have pretty much given up the teaching of argument as well, which explains why public discourse has come to consist mainly of shouted assertions.

If any victims of the St. Mary’s Writing Centre should happen to read this, let me steer you toward some reputable sources:

An article, “All-Purpose Pronoun,” by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman of the Grammarphobia blog and authors of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

A comprehensive summary of the arguments for the usage at Motivated Grammar.

The archive for posts on singular they at Language Log.

Assuming, of course, that you’re not too lazy to look things up.


And your word: Your word of the week at is Stakhanovite.


Correction: I am informed by tweet: "It is Saint Mary's University Writing Centre, not St. Mary's. Please offer a correction your blog post." I have accordingly corrected the first reference. Observing that the centre refers to itself as "St. Mary's Writing Centre" on  its Twitter profile, I have retained the shorter title for subsequent references.




Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (6)


What about "Mary should bring their (i.e. her) own books to class". You wouldn't endorse that, surely?

Of course I wouldn't endorse that. The point of using singular "they" is that it suffices when a gender-neutral pronoun is required. In the sentence you suggest, "her" is plainly appropriate and there is no need for a gender-neutral pronoun.

Few things make me as crazy as the label "lazy" to slur the speech habits of Someone Not Like Me. As if speaking your native tongue were some sort of major effort that the indolent were shirking.

I've heard this with regard to the misuse of apostrophes (people who mix up "its" and "it's" are just "too lazy" to learn the distinction). More ominously, I've also heard it used to describe the characteristic phonology of certain dialects -- a friend of mine thinks speakers who say "aks" for "ask" are being "lazy," because they're not bothering to look at how the word is spelled. (Bostonians who say "idear" for "idea" apparently get a pass on this.)

So now the use of epicene "they" is "lazy" because ... uh ... speakers who use that pronoun simply cannot make the effort to use "he" instead. Or something.

I know it's a simplistic answer to the issue, but there is always the option of using the plural. It solves all kinds of problems.

Having said that, I agree that the term "they" suffices to express the point without dipping into sexist terminology. Obviously, that issue is of greater importance to some and not for others.

I agree with Mike.

More importantly, indefinite "they" has been around for far far longer than concerns about sexist language, and has been used by fine writers - even when "he" makes sense, as in Jane Austen's (Jane Freaking Austen!) novel Emma where we find "Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?"

To the folks who disagree with you, Mr. McIntyre, I can only say "to each their own."

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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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