20 May 2012

an argument for generic singular "they"

Some artist's conception of the battle over
gender-neutral pronominal reference.

(That's my interpretation anyway.)

Daily, certain mental struggles rage that are rarely acknowledged or addressed at the time they take place. These struggles are around English speakers' personal and painful internal consternation over gender-neutral pronominal reference.

Though split-second in duration, these human quandries are detectable in real time: Attend to the speech of the educated as they deliberately consider, ignore, modify, substitute, circumlocute, and stumble over what pronoun to use that is singular, sufficiently gender-neutral, and not so hokey that it will cause their faces to turn red upon uttering it. And that won't make someone yell at them or write them off as an insensitive boob.

We all know the options:

Everyone should bring his own mat....  The masculine singular is the path of least resistance but a growing pitfall, especially in writing. Depending on audience, it's right out there for someone to jump you over it. And then you're a sexist. Yes you are.

Everyone should bring her own mat....  Are you, like, gay?? Unless everyone this is about is actually female or is attending a really fab gay male party, then you should fall on your sword rather than fall into this hole. Seriously. You'll be socially marginalized forever.

Everyone should bring his or her own mat....  This is okay if you're Canadian. Even then, Canadian, gay, whatever, you've marked yourself as kind of prissy. As for switching to her or his own... DO NOT go there. What's a word that's prissier than prissy? Like, by ten times. That's what your label will say.

Everyone should bring their own mat.... You're probably home-free with this in speech. Many will still hesitate to write it, however. I never hear anyone suggest this as an alternative to the other possibilities either, and I'm not sure why. That is, when someone says he/his/her in the context, and another stakeholder wants to go gender-neutral, the latter doesn't say, Don't you mean they! Also, this particular convention stops many when it's in writing.

From my perspective, the latter—generic singular they/them/their—is the way to go. After all, the crux of the matter is solely gender-political, and not really about number agreement. No "singletons" feel discriminated against when someone says, If a student wishes, they can bring their own yoga mat.

Yes, singular-plural agreement across English structures is a strong conformation. Witness the looks I get if I lapse into my home dialect with something like, We was down there earlier. But it's not like we can't break a linguistic trend in some circumstances. Especially if, by doing so, we're fixing another—and subjectively far more politically egregious—agreement problem.

So then, consider:

A doctor is to remain on call for his scheduled shift. Sexist. Yet note that it's clear as a bell semantically, through extended usage—do you really get the sense that we mean only male doctors?—but that's the point of it all. Of course the other point is that you have to make a point of it, but let's stop there.

A doctor is to remain on call for her scheduled shift. Stupid. Confusing, even—are all the doctors women? Also, anything that stands out as unnatural is not likely to get adopted in usage. Generally it goes the way of Esperanto.

A doctor is to remain on call for his or her scheduled shift. Cumbersome. And there's still the gender-ordering problem:  for her or his scheduled shift is NOT a solution.

But what about. . . .

A doctor is to remain on call for their scheduled shift. Honestly, can you say the lack of number-agreement rankles you? If you were to read it in context, and away from this context, wouldn't it be perfectly fine? A key argument for this convention is that it really is natural for most speakers. So people would use it if other considerations weren't stopping them. Like memories of their grade school grammar classes.

I think it comes down to our all being very, very brave and boldly using they for the generic singular in our own speech and writing. And then everyone needs to agree that when someone uses they as the generic singular, we won't think they just don't get singular-plural agreement—that they're some semblance of hillbilly like I am.

Agreed?  (Ha, ha, get it? "Agreed?" Little linguistics joke there....)


As an aside, did I ever bring this book to your attention? Maybe when I was reviewing nonfiction? If you liked this post, then you will really love... Syntactic Argumentation and the Structure of English. Bonus: Great book for reading in public if you don't want anyone to talk to you.


  1. I think we could make a new word. In this example, A doctor is to remain on call for their scheduled shift, most people would pronounce it as 'ther' instead of their.

  2. Hmm.... I can see the argument for a new word, in the abstract; but practically speaking, words invented to replace other words have a hard time entering general usage. And in this case, "ther" would be salient only in writing, as the same pronunciation is a common phonetic realization for "their" in connected speech. (Which you note.)

    You know, though..... A new word for the generic singular *might* emerge naturally, or the whole thing could go the intentional route, as a matter of what's now called political correctness, as did ethnic designations such as "African-American" for "black." Those terms DID take hold.

    Thanks, Lydia!