Thursday, May 17, 2012

The singular they

"I'm a big fan of the singular they," I said on a phone call this morning.  As one does. Well, it was reasonable in the context.  I'm deep in the revisions and edits of Confirm not Conform and we're trying to get our style sheet straight.

And as I said, I'm a fan of the singular they: the grammatical construction that uses the pronoun "they" to refer to a singular subject.  This shows up in CnC in sentences like this: "Ask one of the youth if they will..."

Are you one of those people upon whose nerves this grates?  I understand. Truly I do. I was raised in the school of pronoun agreement.  And even though he/she became cumbersome, I tried--I truly did--to keep the faith.

But then, I started hearing rumors that there was nothing actually wrong with the singular they, that it used to be normal, that people have been doing it for years.  And not just lazy slobs, but writers I admire like Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, C.S. LewisShakespeare, and Mr. Elements of Style himself, E.B. White.

"[A]lthough Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style preaches against singular they, when E. B. White got back to his own excellent writing he wrote lines like “But somebody taught you, didn’t they?” (that’s from Charlotte’s Web)."
If E.B. White can use the singular they, then why can't I? Tell me that.

So who is it who called the singular they grammar non grata?  It was, apparently, one Anne Fischer, 18th century grammarian and author of the 1745 blockbuster, A New Grammar.  It was she who suggested he should be paired with anyone.

And so we have been caught in the pronoun bind ever since: either renounce womanhood or accept awkwardness in the name of political grammatical correctness.

But I refuse! I claim the mantle of Austen and Chaucer.  I shall use the singular they with pride.  I shall wonder if someone is losing their mind.  I shall ask if anyone knows why they say things like that.  I shall fume that such a person doesn't know their elbow from their ear.  I shall use the singular they whenever I please. (Except in the case of Confirm not Conform, because we all understand that someone is going to throw a conniption when they see me use it.)

But to you, my friends, I preach the untrammeled grace of the singular they.  Use it with the comfort of knowing that it holds a long and noble pedigree, and with the hope that someday the singular they shall once again be accepted by one and by all.


Lorin said...

Or you could speak southern and use y'all/all y'all. Totally gender neutral!

Matt Lawrence said...

When I told my wife about this, they said it sounded dubious...But I'm with you, Toepfer. Who can argue with Auden? Oh, but wait... what about that angry letter? (Today's Infusion). It turns out he was kind of a meany. But White: He's a god.

Anonymous said...

Singular they - maybe yes, maybe no. I use it when I'm speaking all the time, but it doesn't feel right at all when I'm writing. If I get to the point where it seems like my only option in a piece of prose, I usually end up restructuring the sentence entirely to avoid the issue!

As long as we are talking grammar, however, I must point out that E. B. White is not actually using the singular they in that sentence from Charlotte's Web - he is creating a character who uses the singular they, which is an entirely different thing. E. B. White's Dr. Dorian uses the singular they while he is speaking, but we can not say anything from this example about whether or not E. B. White himself would use such a construction when he was writing.

LKT said...

Anonymous--I encourage you to try the singular they in your writing. It feels odd at first, and then it's so liberating!