Two weeks ago, Merriam-Webster added the third-person singular pronoun they to the dictionary.
Just in time for the impeachment inquiry.
Ever since the whistle-blower complaint led to an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, those referring to the anonymous whistle-blower have done backflips to avoid using a singular gendered pronoun like he or she. Despite Trump’s most fervent efforts and some reporting to the contrary, as of press time, the whistle-blower’s identity — and gender — remain an official mystery.
Plenty have used he, including Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, when he testified to Congress, “I don’t know who the whistle-blower is, Mr. Chairman, to be honest with you. I’ve done my utmost to protect his anonymity.” This is partly because our language is sexist and you learned in school that when you don’t know the gender of the person whom the pronoun is referring to, you just use he.
But also, according to the Political Appointee Tracker maintained by the Washington Post and the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, 75 percent of key political appointees by the Trump administration have been men. So if you’re talking about anyone anywhere near the White House, using he is a relatively safe bet. But it’s 2019, so you need to stop. (Also, if you’re president, you need to appoint more women to things.)
Many use the awkward he or she or he/she—“the whistle-blower also said that he or she possesses firsthand information,” CBS News wrote (emphasis added) — which is almost as atrocious. When you’re adding that many unnecessary syllables to a pronoun just because you don’t know the gender, you’re doing it wrong. Pronouns shouldn’t be the point of your sentence, but if you’re writing he/she or s/he or some nonsense, those pronouns suck up way more attention than they deserve. Plus, why do you always say he/she and not she/he? You’re still being sexist.
Only a few grammatical heroes have been willing to use they as the third-person singular pronoun — including Congressman Adam Schiff, as chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who asked Maguire, “They couldn’t be in good faith if they were acting as a political hack, could they?”
As I’ve written before, they has a long and rich history of being used in the singular. Shakespeare did it (thank you, Lord Polonius!), as did plenty of writers for hundreds of years before and after him. So we aren’t exactly breaking new ground.
It’s notable that Merriam-Webster finally recognizes they’s singular usage — not just for when the antecedent is unspecified or unknown, but for individuals who prefer not to use gendered pronouns like she, her, he, and him. But the M-W editors are also late. The Associated Press, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, and MLA all got there first (at least for nonbinary individuals’ pronouns), so the editors’ adoption of they is not exactly a profile in courage.
On the other hand, having the courage to withhold your gender and identity to call out grossly impeachable conduct, especially when you know that the underbelly of the right-wing internet will stop at nothing to find you, expose you, and ruin your life? That hero can use any pronoun they damn well please.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, 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 reciprocal pronouns to firstname.lastname@example.org.