Who do they think they are?
gRAMMAR HAS seldom produced so much public acrimony as in the worldwide battle over pronouns. In a 2015 skirmish, the University of Tennessee offered guidance on referencing non-binary students on its website, only for the political backlash to lead to a legislative ban on spending public money to support students. non-traditional pronouns. Jordan Peterson, a controversial Canadian scholar, has refused to use made-up pronouns or “they” in relation to people who do not identify as either male or female. Many fulminating commentators spy that political correctness is unleashed yet again.
Into the breach comes a helpful fix in the form of Dennis Baron’s new book, “What’s Your Pronoun?” Mr. Baron is a linguist at the University of Illinois and a long-time specialist in a curious gap in the English language. For centuries people have struggled with the fact that there is no uncontroversial pronoun to denote a subject of unknown, indeterminate, or mixed gender.
Singular they or they, in phrases such as “Everyone loves their mother”, has long been considered incorrect. Mr. Baron traces the first such ruling to a 16th-century Latin grammar, which declared the masculine to be the most honorable gender that, if necessary, encompassed the feminine. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this view made its way into English grammars: when referring to a generic person, you should say “Everybody loves their mother.”
But there were major flaws in this argument. Proponents of the rule have treated it as a simple matter of grammatical agreement: everybody is grammatically singular, so requires a singular pronoun. They is plural and will not do. For true agreeers, however, the pronouns must match in both number and gender. Generic they or they is false in number, but generic he is false according to gender.
However, “he understand shewas in the textbooks, and so, for a time, proto-feminists tried to take advantage of it where they could. Laws stipulating that each person must pay “their” taxes force women to pay too. So, 19th century suffragists reasoned, statutes referring to a generic voter as “he” gave women the right to vote. Apparently hoisted to the chauvinistic firecracker, the defenders of male suffrage tactically retreated: he included she unless it produces an “absurd” reading – like giving women the right to vote. (Since it was often assumed that husbands voted in the best interests of their wives, Susan B. Anthony, a 19th-century American suffragist, suggested that if a wife commits murder, her husband should be hanged instead. )
Given the problems of he, many people invented new genderless pronouns. The first that Mr Baron was able to find (out of more than 250 in total) dates from 1841: E. Other suggestions continue in a steady stream until today. From time to time, one found a small purchase. In 1884, three dictionaries included tunaabbreviated from That one, but failed to win. The Sacramento beea newspaper, said in 1920 that he would use Hello in place of “he or she”, and did so sporadically until the 1940s, but it also faded.
The “missing word”, says Mr. Baron, is “they”. People have been using it as a generic singular in writing since at least 1375, and arguably say it even longer. He appeared as such in the King James Bible, the works of Shakespeare and the novels of Jane Austen. Recently, an increasing number of style guides, including those of The Economist and the Associated Press as well as Chicago style manualconcluded that it is often the most pragmatic of a set of imperfect solutions.
But it all comes as a different singular they or they came to the fore: referencing a well-known person who identifies as non-binary, as a growing number do, in phrases such as “Alex forgot his keys.” It is the increasingly common singular they or they which was recently recognized by the American Dialect Society as its word of the decade.
The two uses are quite different. That of “everyone has their own opinion” is actually quite conservative, considering his age, his literary pedigree, and the fact that most people already say it in everyday language. They in “Alex forgot their keys” is, on the other hand, innovative and shocking for many; for the uninitiated, it takes practice to use it consistently. And although feminists and transgender activists have embraced the singular they or they, they did it for different reasons, and other issues still divide them. A rare moment of liberating through grammar risks being caught up in larger, resentful culture wars.