English

In Praise of They

I’m from Finland, and English is my second language. The Finnish tongue has only a neutral third pronoun: there is zero differentiation between he/she, his/her.

This used to drive me nuts when writing English. AARGH. Why do I need to specify the sex of the person here? Why should it matter? Why is this bloody language so obsessed with gender? Why should I have to underline the inconsequentiality of gender by using “he or she”-style constructions?

Recently I’ve been liberated, though, as I finally learned about singular they. Chigago Manual of Style may disagree, but that’s their prerogative. (Amusingly their 1993 version actually recommended using the singular they… so change in that direction seems pretty inevitable if slow.)

Here’s what the Grammar Girl has to say:

I will state for the record that I am a firm believer that someday “they” will be the acceptable choice for this situation. English currently lacks a word that fits the bill, and many people are already either mistakenly or purposely using “they” as a singular generic personal pronoun; so it seems logical that rules will eventually move in that direction.

Nevertheless, it takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use “they” with a singular antecedent today. I could almost feel people’s blood pressure rising as I started to imply that it is OK to use “they.”

The thing is, if you are a respected editor in charge of writing a style guide for your entire organization, you can get away with making it acceptable to use “they” with a singular antecedent. I would even encourage you to do so, and there are a variety of credible references that will back you up including the Random House Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage. You would be in the company of revered authors such as Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and Shakespeare.

Bold, confident, even reckless — that’s me!