Feb 01

A “They” by Any Other Name…

Their, they’re and there. Whom and whose. The Oxford comma. The singular “they” pronoun. To English language purists, them are fightin’ words! The Guardians of Grammar will fight to the death to protect the purity of the English language, and these are the battles at the forefront of the language wars.

The singular they has been around for centuries, as far back as the 14th century, according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and I’m betting it’s been the bane of high school English teachers almost as long. It’s just so easy to use they instead of he/she, him/her or (s)he, not to mention sounding so much less awkward.

For those who insist on the proper use of the language, I have bad news: it’s not going to go away. Why? Because it solves a problem without sounding weird, and it mimics what has long been acceptable in spoken English. At this point, trying to eradicate the use of the singular they is going to be like prying smart phones out of the hands of teenagers – it can’t be done. Besides, if you’re really serious about being an English language purist, you’re living in the wrong century. You might want to consider reverting back to the language of Chaucer, as in this excerpt from The Canterbury Tales:

“Get me a staf, that I may underspore,

Whil that thou, Robyn, hevest up the dore.

He shal out of his studiyng, as I gesse.”

And to the chambre dore he gan hym dresse.

His knave was a strong carl for the nones,

And by the haspe he haaf it of atones;

Into the floor the dore fil anon.

Makes the use of they as a singular pronoun seem positively preferable, doesn’t it?

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