I’ve been using “they” and “their” as both singular and plural pronouns since the 1970s when I rebeled against the use of “he” and “his” as the supposedly gender neutral singular pronoun. When I was told that a pronoun couldn’t be both singular and plural I responded, “You must be kidding, as “you” and “your” are regularly used that way.
You only need four letters to take a stand against the prejudice embedded in the English language
Thursday 5 May 2016
I got in trouble over a four-letter word the other day. None of the ones you are thinking of: it was “they” that caused a fracas that Jeremy Clarkson would have been proud of.
At the start of 2016, the good folks of the American Dialect Society got together to crown their Word of the Year. They (see what I’m doing here) have decided that the word could now be used as a singular pronoun, flexing the English language so a plural could denote a singular, genderless, individual.
They has long been used in the singular in English, but not to denote genderlessness. One of the earliest examples comes from Geoffrey Chaucer in 1395, who wrote in The Pardoner’s Tale: “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up…” Shakespeare followed in 1594, in The Comedy of Errors: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/As if I were their well-acquainted friend”. It took a few centuries for they to pop up in reference to women: Jane Austen uses they in the singular 75 times in Pride and Prejudice (1813) and as Rosalind muses in 1848’s Vanity Fair: “A person can’t help their birth.”
Around 1809, Samuel Taylor Coleridge rejected “he” as the generic pronoun (“in order to avoid particularising man or woman, or in order to express either sex indifferently”, he wrote in his notebooks), settling on “it” as an ideal, neutral solution. Roughly around the same time, the philosopher John Stuart Mill was struggling to define the philosophy of language itself: what we could know – if anything – beyond our language? Mill came to the conclusion that language tells us what is thinkable, possible; so, if a young woman never sees the word “she” or “they”, could she naturally know that “he” represented her, too? No. In this sense, women were inherently excluded.
Growing up almost two centuries later, I was just supposed to understand that language excluded me because I was a girl: I was out, except when it came to naming hurricanes and referring to ships. I was once told as a kid that all hurricanes were female because women were so destructive; a barbed comment I never questioned because at the time I already sensed some things were easier if you were a boy.