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Taking Back “They” June 18, 2012

Posted by johnhemry in Uncategorized.

Once upon a time (up until the late eighteenth century) the English language had an all-purpose pronoun.  It could refer to a man or a woman, and be singular or plural.  That pronoun was “they” (or its variations “them” or “their”).  “They” wasn’t alone in being either plural or singular.  “You” does the same thing, but “you” did not attract the meddling of self-appointed rulers of grammar who started insisting that “they” could only refer to plurals.  By the early nineteenth century this made-up rule was being written into all the usage and style guides.  The result has been to require people to either use the clunky “his or her” as a substitute for the singular use of they, or else use “his” as the default pronoun.  No matter how some may argue that “his” in that case is some sort of universal/all-mankind pronoun, that use of “his” conveys the clear impression that everyone worth talking about is male.  Despite the can’t-use-they-for-singular rule, great writers like Shakespeare, Austen, Shaw and Kipling went ahead and did it anyway.  That’s because “they” simply works better for both plural and singular usage.  A lot of people still use they in that manner, despite the rule, and we’re slowly making that usage acceptable again.  Keep it up, everybody.  We need that pronoun, and English speakers always knew it.  It’s past time the rule made up in the late eighteenth century got tossed out.


1. Thomas Bätzler - June 18, 2012

Sounds like a typical case of “be careful what you wish for” to me – you might get a neutral “they”, but if the lexicographers follow the most common usage, the pronoun will be spelled “there”, no matter that “their wrong” 😉

2. bridell - June 19, 2012

Another thing I’d like to take back is.. Well it’s actually completely unrelated but as someone from The Netherlands I don’t have anything to say about they, his and hers. If my English is decent enough to be understood, I’m happy.

So it’s off topic but I would like to take back the word Sci-Fi. Or protest the inflation of the word.

The other day I saw Prometheus. I had been looking forward to it. High expectations. The movie turned out to be really, really bad. It is unworthy to be named Science Fiction. Call it Fantasy or Adventure, or fairy tale for all I care. Not Sci-Fi, it isn’t.

I dislike Prometheus for the same reason I love The Lost Fleet series. The rules. The rules of the universe don’t change. Laws of nature don’t change. The Prometheus script writers are like so many writers and movie makers nowadays, anything goes. I understand because that way they can do all those neat CGI effects. I don’t understand why still so many people seem to like those movies. Mirrors and shiny things are enough? Nevermind the impossibilities and plot holes, look at those pretty explosions and flashy effects. Bling-bling generation?

I buy The Lost Fleet series as audio books. Extremely well done by Christian Rummel by the way. A joy to listen to. Anyway in one of the intros you touch upon having to stick to the rules. It sometimes makes things hard and complicated, no convenient short cuts, but you don’t bend or break them. And that is writing Sci-Fi!

A few weeks ago I got Invincible, currently half way through listening. Love it! Prometheus is not fit to hold a candle to Invincible. No exaggeration. I don’t want to spoil but the ‘Kicks’ are awesome! If you thought carnivores are ruthless, come meet the herbivores. Very eager to see how it plays out!

3. Gray Nezumi - June 19, 2012

Does it matter that the style guides say only use “they” for plural? It’s just a style guide after all, which is in a sense, fashion. Dare to be unfashionable, or be the new fashion trend setter. If an editor doesn’t like it, they can deal…

4. Noel Baker - June 24, 2012

So many ridiculous grammatical rules were imposed on the English language in the 18th century. The people responsible thought that Latin was superior to the Germanic plain English so sought to impose foreign Latin type rules and structure on a Germanic language. Ridiculous.

johnhemry - June 24, 2012

And it all worked just about as well as you’d expect.

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