Taking Back “They” June 18, 2012Posted 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.