Everyone For Themself

I introduced myself to a man at Stephen’s Christmas party who said his name was Shine. What a strange name, i thought, but then later he mentioned he was Austrylian.


Facebook reared its head the other day, and a post about changing language standards came up and was quite entertaining, particularly the part about the use of they and their as gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronouns.

Let me say right up front that if someone wants me to use the pronoun “her” in reference to him, i ignore the testimony of my lying eyes and do so.  This is common courtesy in a day in which growing numbers of people are not cisgender.  Likewise, if someone wishes me to avoid pronouns that carry sexual identity and referred to her as “they”, i readily do so.

And yes, in contemporary American spoken English, it is quite standard to say, “Every citizen should pick up their trash” even though not all that long ago “his trash” was standard and not just because men are trashier than women.

But still, the proliferation of they and their as third-person singular pronouns grates.  After all, English already has a gender neutral third-person singular pronoun, it.  Alas, people have such a strong aversion to using it in reference to themselves and other humans that they use they, their, and them as singulars even though this leads to the creepy back formation themself.

Another problem i see in the use of they as a singular arises with the question of what verb to employ.  Take a simple case:

“Everyone does what he wants”.  When we change that by using they as a singular, we get “Everyone does what they wants”.  And immediately everyone squeals that it should be they want.  How can this be, i ask, since third person singular verbs are inflected with “s” as we see at the beginning of the sentence in Everyone does.  “No no”, they says, “even though i am using they as a singular, it’s really still a plural and must take the plural verb want”.

Well, actually, they has a point here, so i’ll go ahead and say they have since it sounds so much better.  After all, when Victoria used the royal “we” in reference to herself, she did not say, “We am not amused.”

Late Note:  In response to this post, a friend emailed me:  “See also http://blog.oup.com/2016/01/gender-politics-generic-he/ and its link to https://illinois.edu/blog/view/25/280996 by the same writer.”  Carefully researched and breathtakingly eloquent.  I was wrong wrong wrong.  Besides, the singular they always did sound just fine, which means that it has been in common use all my life.

Later Note:  My timing on this post was terrible, as the American Dialect Society has joined the crowd howling for my blood.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/08/donald-trump-may-win-this-years-word-of-the-year/

I’m thinking this might also be a good time for me to stop sniping at “fun” as an adjective.

One Last Note:  I wrote that English already has a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, it, but that people didn’t like it referring to them.  The irony, it strikes me, is that the reason they don’t like it is that it strips them of their gender whereas they allows them to keep their gender without specifying it.  I should have pointed out that we have another gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, one, but that it’s so formal and old fashioned that it’s impossibly prissy.

Meanwhile, since we’re talking about grammar, how ’bout this bastard offspring of German and English on Washington Street.

Werk or Works, dammit


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