Up in Arms Over a Pronoun
Feedback on my newsletter about the embrace of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun referring to a single person — Joel is wearing their green shirt today because it matches their pants — has been, well, pointed.
It seems that quite a few people have a major problem with this change in pronominal usage. I understand all of their objections but disagree with them.
One of the common objections I heard to the adoption of the singular “they” is that it is being imposed on us rather than happening by itself via the gradual morphing that happens under the radar. This kind of drift, as we linguists like to call it, is indeed one way that language can change, such as how “goodbye” started out as “God be with you” and the word “silly” once meant “blessed.” (Back in the day, if you were blessed, there was an implication that you were innocent, which led to a suspicion that you were weak, which became “weak-minded,” and after several centuries, you’re a just a boob.)
So: Some of my readers insisted that they weren’t fusty grammar scolds who think the language is supposed to stand still but that they opposed the singular “they” because it is a less a natural change, one we are being instructed to adopt. Language isn’t supposed to change by fiat, the idea seems to be.
But changes brought about by announcement are nothing new. One example of this is the shift from the usage of “Black” to “African American,” which I mentioned in my previous piece on “they.” This swap largely came about at the explicit urging of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the late 1980s. He implored people to embrace the term, arguing, “To be called African Americans has cultural integrity. It puts us in our proper historical context.”
While there have been quibbles about that term here and there (including from me), I feel safe venturing that the intersection is slight between people up in arms against “they” and people who find the term “African American” insisted upon and therefore unwelcome.
Another typical complaint I received about the gender-neutral pronoun is that it goes against the natural human instinct to see a distinction between men and women, that it doesn’t correspond to immediate experience. One person who wrote me said that all societies have been based on a fundamental difference between men and women and that all languages attend to that distinction. To demand that our language pay attention to an intermediate category, this reader said, is “inorganic.”
But another way of thinking about labeling things that don’t correspond to immediate experience is refinement. Much of what we are taught about the “proper” way to write and speak is based on a quest for this kind of fine-tuning, reminding people of distinctions that may not occur to them spontaneously.
We are often taught to distinguish the nonrestrictive clause — something that adds information — from the restrictive clause, which is something that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. For the former, we use “which” and set it off with commas: “The car, which I drove yesterday, broke down.” Restrictive clauses come with a “that,” “who” or “whom” and no commas: “The car that I drove yesterday broke down.” Observing distinctions like this is a refinement, accessible to most only by way of tutelage, and yet many cherish them.
Spanish offers one of my favorite examples of refinement. A corner in a room is a rincón, but a corner on a street is an esquina. This is a distinction that would never occur to me to build into a language that I was making from scratch, because in English a corner is a corner. To me, and I suspect many, that difference in Spanish between “rincón” and “esquina” seems more perceptive than English’s way, even if initially counterintuitive.
Using “they” is a refinement in the same way. Throughout history, there is evidence of some people who do not feel comfortable in the roles traditionally assigned to men and women, including those who feel they embody aspects of both. Examples include the muxes, who are part of the Zapotec community in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the mahus among Indigenous Tahitians and Hawaiians; both groups are recognized in their cultures as being a third gender.
For a language to have a pronoun referring to these individuals can be seen as a step ahead, a refined distinction that signals increasing sophistication in how we see people as well as how they see themselves.
Some of the more passionate responsesto my piece were from readers who seem to think it urgent to warn me of a larger movement afoot that I could not be aware of in my role as jolly linguist — that the little pronoun would lead to the wholesale rejection of sex and gender differences throughout society.
The idea that “they” will encourage the falling away of these distinctions reminds me of an analogous case. Imagine someone who is against the teaching of critical race theory — that power differentials must be the main concern of all intellectual and moral endeavors and justify essentializing white people as oppressors and nonwhite people as spiritually and ethically defined by their victimhood — saying that schoolchildren shouldn’t learn anything about racism and slavery at all. The rationale would be: You can’t teach racism because it’s part of the larger curriculum I object to.
Note how flabby the argument seems that to keep those lessons from our children requires schools to zip up about race and racism completely. Certainly the schoolteacher dedicated to critical race theory ideas will also teach about slavery, but this hardly suggests that no one should teach about slavery at all.
I am not convinced that “they” could be all that powerful on even a language level. For example, if anyone were to call for all people to be referred to as “they” — which I am unaware of but is conceivable as an idea someone might propose — it would fall so far from common perception that it would be unlikely to catch on.
Embrace of linguistic conventions has limits, as we know from the fact that blackboard grammar teaches that we are supposed to knock on a door and say, “It is I.” We are well aware that to follow that rule would sound so bizarre that it would discourage the person on the other side from allowing us entry at all.
People are referring to themselves or some of their cohort as “they.” I highly suspect that we are ultimately seeing something more happening to a pronoun that never seems to want to sit still.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and “Woke Racism.”