Before Tuesday’s bigoted Supreme Court decision to restrict military service by transgender people, “they” was on its way toward acceptance as a third-person singular pronoun.
Now we just have one more thing to fight for.
Which of the following sentences upsets more people:
1) A person can’t help their birth, as William Thackeray wrote in Vanity Fair?
2) The United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military, as @realDonaldTrump tweeted on July 26, 2017? You’d be surprised.
Many grammatical purists still cling to the absurd notion that “they,” “them,” and “their” should be used only when referring to plural nouns, as in, “All of the Philadelphia Eagles players were OK with ending their season in New Orleans, because really, who wants to go to Georgia?” Those purists claim that the sentence A person can’t help their birth should be changed to something much more awkward:
Traditional misogynists would say it should read, A person can’t help his birth. People going out of their way to prove their feminist credentials would advocate for, A person can’t help her birth. Writers who hate their readers would suggest, A person can’t help his/her birth. All of these “fixes” are terrible.
Even when Thackeray first published Vanity Fair more than 170 years ago, “they,” “them,” and “their” were already commonly used third-person singular pronouns. Shakespeare did it in Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors, among other places. Same with Auden and Austen and Alcott and lots of other writers whose names don’t start with A.
So why the pedantry?
You can partly blame the stylebooks. Some, like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and the APA, explicitly forbid using “they” in the singular. Others, like Merriam-Webster and the Chicago Manual of Style, are more open-minded, but most opt for the wimpy, “write around it if you can. And if you can’t, try again, and then maybe you can kind of use a singular ‘they’ as long as you do it under the covers with all the lights off in your apartment and promise not to make a lot of noise.
Moreover, dictionaries and stylebooks take a while to catch up. Merriam-Webster added “cisgender,” “genderqueer,” and “Mx.” to the dictionary less than three years ago, even though “Mx.” had its first known usage in 1977, and “cisgender” and “genderqueer” both surfaced in the mid-’90s. As popular understanding of gender fluidity grows, our language naturally — but sometimes belatedly — follows suit.
In this context, “they” makes more sense than ever as a singular pronoun. It’s not just the most concise solution we have; it’s most accurate for those who rightfully reject “he” and “she.”
If the dictionaries can get there, we can only hope that the Supreme Court will, too.
The Angry Grammarian looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions, and deictic pronouns to email@example.com.