in which they has some opinions, and so do i

A friend sent me this link recently, knowing I’d probably have an opinion or two: “Stylebooks finally embrace the single ‘they’

Then, a few days later, I saw this (not exactly the same question, but related): “Billions performer challenges the Emmys’ actor/actress binary

People have been pushing for the “singular they” for a while — as an improvement over the old rule of using male pronouns for individuals of indeterminate gender. And it is an improvement, but my reaction is still: I prefer not to. I don’t use the male pronoun (though I’ve been writing for decades about a character who does πŸ™‚ ) — I rewrite.

This is different, though, than the question of a person who doesn’t identify as “he” or “she” in the first place. I read an article once about someone who didn’t want any pronoun used — so every place where the person was referred to the name was used, rather than a pronoun.

This (the latter) is something more important than a grammatical question, though — I think this is a question of politeness. If a person prefers a particular pronoun — or a particular name, for that matter — that’s what you use. If it results in awkward sentences — and even if it doesn’t — you can insert an editorial note at the beginning explaining the decision.

 
“Style guides, like dictionaries, follow the language, not lead it, and they often accept usage years after it has become embraced by users, if not by language sticklers.”

Yes and no. Chicago draws a very clear distinction between dictionaries — which do indeed report how language is used, often not how it “should” be used — and style manuals. which go somewhat further (not “farther” πŸ™‚ ).

The CMOS website, for example, has a whole section called “Good usage versus common usage.”

 
“And it’s now only a matter of time before the generic singular ‘they’ can come out into the light as well.”

I find this to be an unconvincing analogy. πŸ™‚

That being said, the writer of this article is probably right — I think it’s probably inevitable. However, “careful writers” (to borrow Chicago’s phrase) may still resist, particularly in formal writing. The same way some of us old cranks still resist “contact” as a verb, and the use of “that” to refer to a person, and “presently” to mean “at present, and so on.

And Chicago is “holding the line,” at least for now. So that’s something.

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2 Responses to in which they has some opinions, and so do i

  1. Maggie says:

    I still try to avoid “they” whenever possible. I like to use “he or she,” but sometimes that can get awkward, and in some circles, it could even be taken to be offensive if people do not use the typical male and female pronouns. My company does a lot of research on gender issues, so we are still figuring out the best way to address all the different pronouns that are out there… and we have adopted the singular “they.”

  2. I haven’t seen any reference at my job to the situation of people who prefer pronouns other than “he” and “she.”

    I’ll report back if (when) that changes. πŸ™‚

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