The Telegraph published a poll last week, asking readers whether the singular they ― as in, “My friend ate a bagel. They beamed with perfect joy” ― is a correct use of grammar. The 1,000-plus voters were torn on the issue: 54 percent said “no,” and 46 percent ― myself included ― said “yes.”
The poll resulted from a linguistic kerfuffle between Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account and Andy Smarick, an author and a member of the Maryland State Board of Education.
“The astute may have noticed a difference in our feed. Our witty and fabulous social media manager is away. But don’t worry, they’ll return,” @MerriamWebster tweeted, circumventing the clunky and unnecessary task of identifying the employee’s gender.
“I won’t be baited into a pronoun agreement fight [sic] I won’t be baited into a pronoun agreement fight I won’t be bait...,” Smarick tweeted.
The dictionary’s temporary social account manager then explained that they were using the singular they, and that the dictionary adheres to descriptivism. “We follow language, language doesn’t follow us,” they tweeted.
“Language rules are all that separate us from the animals,” Smarick then said, via a social media platform on the internet, a technological feat that wrests upon thousands of years’ worth of progressively advanced scientific discovery.
But about that pronoun: The singular “they” is the linguistic equivalent of tearing down gendered bathroom signs, along with the less invisible but more harmful dividers that stand between men, women, and people who identify as non-binary. It’s a way of eschewing labels when they’re irrelevant to a story or sentence, and is one of a few alternatives to gendered pronouns, including invented descriptors ne/nem/nir, xe/xem/xyr and ve/vis/ver.
As with most social developments, accepting the singular “they” or one of its substitutes may have growing pains. Using a plural word to describe an individual might feel like cause for pedantic wrist-slapping, and so your Pavlovian response is to avoid it. But rejiggering an old word to make it different and purposeful is a switch that’s more likely to catch on than introducing a new word entirely. This is how pronouns have changed for centuries: incrementally.
If altruism isn’t really your thing, there are other cases for the singular they. Anonymity is more possible online, where communication so often happens today. Venturing to guess at an anonymous writers’ gender gives it undue importance, as though the fact that a writer is a woman or man is more important than any other defining attributes, like their self-selected username or handle.
And, the pronounage previously deemed proper ― “he or she” ― is a clunky, ugly mouthful. Shouldn’t language be beautiful, or at least efficient?
For these reasons, the singular “they” was embraced by The Washington Post last year, when it was also awarded Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. Merriam-Webster considers it a word they’re “watching,” or considering for entry into its pages. In a blog on the word they quote famously playful poet Emily Dickinson in writing, “Almost anyone under the circumstances would have doubted if [the letter] were theirs, or indeed if they were themself.”
So, creative writers, copy editors and linguists are beginning to accept the social import and verbal grace of the singular “they.” But language users ― i.e., we other humans ― are undecided on the issue.
Is there any other field that generates such vehement disapproval of the decisions experts decree? Diet, perhaps: The New York Times reported this morning on the foods that the public thinks are good for you, but nutritionists consider unhealthy.
Both fields are murky and seemingly ever-changing, leaving the public to its own devices. Everybody eats, and almost everybody speaks, making pseudo-nutritionists and pseudo-linguists of us all.
UPDATE: Since the publication of this post, Andy Smarick wrote a post of his own addressing his comments. After speaking with colleagues and researching how the singular they is being used today, he said, “I’ve learned a great deal, and I’m much more aware. For example, I better understand and appreciate why those for whom the ‘singular they’ is already an integral part of an identity-sensitive lexicon interpreted my response as a provocation.”