The Singular Case for “They”

In the last century, back when I first began daring to think of myself as a writer, I thought I knew how gender was supposed to play out in language. I had grown up speaking Tamil at home. It’s a language that is set up quite logically, with a neutral gender assigned to inanimate objects. I’d struggled mightily with Hindi, in which common nouns are gendered, there is no neutral gender and you’re just supposed to know that a chair (कुर्सी), for example is feminine and your glasses (चश्मा) are masculine.

IMG_2066But I thought I knew the rules in English. Pronouns were supposed to correspond to the referent, whether that was male, female, or genderless. When you dealt in plurals, however, the male, rather illogically, was supposed to embrace the female. That posed a minor problem for me, if truth be told. Still, (we’re talking about America in the 1980s here) I was determined to follow the rules in order to be recognized as literate. In order to make people stop saying to me in surprised tones, “You’re from India? But you speak such good English.”

[Brief aside: Rule-following did not help that cause. Some people still say that to me. These days I reply: “You don’t do too badly yourself!”]

So I spent a lot of time dancing around the noun-pronoun-gender minefield.

Then I read Ursula Le Guin’s afterword to The Left Hand of Darkness. And realized that the little unease I’d always felt about that embrace situation–well, maybe it wasn’t so irrational after all. Men have spoken for women for centuries, not to mention embracing them without asking permission. How natural it was then for the language of Empire to reframe suppression and erasure as inclusion.

Still, whenever I could, I tried to write in plurals. I’d torque myself into twisty sentences, or clip them all into many short ones, in order to make that gender connection unnecessary. But it was when I was reading students’ work that I really began to doubt my own adherence to a rule that had begun feeling more and more archaic to me. Susa Silvermarie’s critical thesis on gender fluidity eventually led me to question, among other things, some of the building blocks of grammar that I’d taken for granted.

In 2016, NPR offered this update:

Talk about belated recognition. At its meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, the American Dialect Society voted to make the 600-year-old pronoun “they” their word of the year for 2015. Or more precisely, a particular use of that pronoun that grammarians call the singular “they.” This is the “they” that doesn’t care whether it’s referring to a male or female. As in “If I get a call, tell them they can call me back.” Or “Did someone leave their books here?”

As ordinary as it is, that use of “they” has always been a bit disreputable — you might say it, but you wouldn’t want to write it down. But now it’s a pronoun whose hour has come.

So there. I’m burying my gender pronoun hatchet at last. If anyone calls me on it, tell them to worry about something else instead.

How about apostrophes?

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s