Who’s Afraid of They? “They” Are!

Scott Gardner


n 2019, both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary announced that they were acknowledging additional meanings for the pronoun they/them. In the etymological world there hasn’t been news this big since the OED decided once and for all to remove the 'word' quasipostantiologism from its pages on the grounds that it was a non-word made up only of affixes with no root. (Interestingly, the more basic term postantiologism was allowed to remain by a slim margin, due to a well-organized lobbying effort by postantiologists from around the world.)

For centuries, English speakers have used they not only as a referent for a group of two or more people, but also as a non-he-or-she-specific referent for an individual person. Famous users going back to Austen and Shakespeare reflected the times by using they as a singular. But for some reason the self-styled Preservers of Our Precious Language, English (otherwise known as “the POOPLE”—or more familiarly “the Poops”—but often referred to simply as “They”) launched a campaign of shame against singular they, banishing it to the colloquial back alleys of English usage. Properly, They insisted, both gender and number had to be either retained by differentiation (he/she) or subsumed by inclusion (genderless he?!), causing speakers to stumble through clunky double-take constructions like “Man lives longer than most other mammals after he is no longer able to bear children,” or “Someone has left his-or-her earrings-or-cufflinks in the ladies’-lounge-or-toilet.”

The Poops’ pronoun gender enforcement gave generations of English teachers anxieties about committing linguistic sacrilege whenever they asked students questions like, “Would anybody like to share their thoughts on this Emily Dickinson poem?” or “Which one of you chumps is going to avoid detention by ratting on their friends and telling me who stole the projector remote?” Personally, I learned long ago to get around this conflict by using it: “If somebody needs to use the bathroom, it can take one of the hall passes hanging by the door.” You might argue that calling somebody “it” is dehumanizing, but you have to admit that you’re doing the same thing by calling them “somebody” in the first place.

Ironically, the dictionaries’ acceptance of singular they is not intended to remove gender from pronoun usage, but rather to add and acknowledge additional genders, i.e., people who don’t identify as either he or she. Something makes me think that this act of gender recognition on Oxford and Webster’s part might be even more infuriating to all those Poops out there (in this case I mean the Protectors of Our Prejudices, Lifestyles and Ethics) who think that two gender words is plenty, thank you. To Them, nonbinary is a technical term that should only be relevant in a mathematics classroom. And even then, some of Them might claim the word “condones fluidity” and try to get the math teacher fired for mentioning it in class.

As far as I’m concerned, in typical English no one is any gender at all until the speaker/writer chooses—or is compelled by Them—to indicate one. If I were talking to my friend about an encounter I had with someone the day before, I could reveal gender right off the bat by saying, “I was talking to this dude at the party last night—wow, man, he was such a poser!” On the other hand, I could use my oratory skills to tell the same story and leave gender out of it completely: “I say, mon ami, you’d never imagine what sort of utterly drab and superficial person I was accosted by at last night’s soirée!” Depending on my powers of verbosity, I could postpone the gender reveal for another sentence, another minute, or indefinitely, by using descriptive nouns rather than pronouns: “The tiresome simp had the nerve to come to the party wearing purple silk jodhpurs just like mine!”; “When I started questioning the cretin’s motives for imitating my evening’s fashion choices, the witless dullard had no more ingenuity than to parrot the same insinuations at me!”; etc.

Mind you, dragging this out sentence after sentence just to avoid mentioning gender can test the limits of your vocabulary. Using they is much simpler, and gives you a chance to stick it to Them at the same time, with all the blessings of the OED. So use they whenever you get the chance: it’s all for one and one for all! And while you’re at it, get yourselves a pair of purple silk jodhpurs.