They, their, and them

(posted by John)

We all use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we want to be gender-neutral. It’s so common these days that we hardly notice it, and nobody has ever corrected me when I’ve said ‘they’ in conversation. But most of us have been told not to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we’re writing something at all formal. As it turns out, though, we are in good company. The singular ‘they’ has been around for a long time, and it’s been used by some of history’s most famous and well-respected authors. Geoffrey Chaucer is credited by many as the first major author to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, albeit writing in Middle English.

And whose fyndeth hym out of swich blame. / They wol come up . . .

-Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue”

Chaucer is credited with the first use of singular ‘they.’

This was all the way back at the end of the 14th century. And since then, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, a number of other famous writers have done the same, including Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen.  The NY Times’ On Language cites more—Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope, among others.

“And every one to rest themselves betake.”

-Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, 1594

“Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it”

-Lord Byron, letter, 1805

“I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.”

-Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

Nevertheless, most ‘purists’ agree that the traditionally correct way to use a singular pronoun in ‘neutral’ situations is to use the masculine ‘he.’ This ends up at least sounding fine in most places. But Merriam-Webster points out that it is “awkward at best” to use ‘he’ in certain instances, for example when the pronoun’s antecedents are both male and female.

“She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself.”

-Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (in Reader’s Digest)

“. . . the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress.”

-C.C. Fries, American English Grammar, 1940 (in Reader’s Digest)

Reread those two examples with ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ and see for yourself how much better they sound.

Interestingly enough, the Times’ On Language credits a feminist grammar teacher by the name of Anne Fisher with popularizing the use of ‘he’ as the neutral pronoun.

 “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”

-On Language, Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, July 21, 2009

For many, it’s not just an issue of sounding awkward in certain contexts. It is a major point of contention that the so-called ‘neutral’ pronoun is actually masculine–call it a symbol of continued male dominance in a world that should instead be striving for equality between the genders. And it without doubt sounds sexist to say that “Everyone should have his fair share” or “Everyone should be allowed to assert his rights.”

However, attempts to find a good gender-neutral pronoun that’s not ‘they’ have been relatively futile. The On Lanugage article discusses a wave of Twitter-using grammarians tweeting about some of them, like hiseror shhe. I’ve also heard zhe (that first sound zh is supposed to be [ʒ] in IPA, like the first sound in the French name Jacques). None of these seem particularly satisfactory to me though.

One frustrated tweeter agreed, simply saying “Damn you, English language!” — I guess everybody’s entitled to their (his? zheir?) own opinion, but maybe we should just be happy with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is definitively ‘they.’

Like I said, lots of people have an opinion on this issue. I hope my position is clear enough, but I would be interested to learn what other people think. Also, if anyone has any suggestions for, or has heard other good versions of, a gender-neutral pronoun, let us know!