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BONUS VIDEO – The singular they

You may have been hearing a lot about the "singular they" recently. But what is it? How does it work, what is its history, and is it grammatical? Let's find out. 

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] So you may have been hearing a lot of talk about this thing called singular they recently not knowing entirely what it is or whether or not it's okay to use in a sentence or in formal writing. Um, it's been in the news a lot lately, you know we're seeing publications like The Washington Post and The Economist putting it into their style guides. It was the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year in 2015 but like what is it, and is it okay to use? I know that I got dinged all the time for using "they" as a singular pronoun in papers in high school, along with "is," I got in a lot of trouble for using "is," which would always be circled. Some teachers of mine just really hated "is." I get it now, it's kind of weak but anyway we're not talking about that today, we're talking about they, singular they. So they is more commonly known as the plural third person pronoun in English so if we say, you know, Rolando and Phil go to the park we can switch out Rolando and Phil and say they go to the park, and that's one usage of they but you may have also seen sentences that look like this. Like, "When a journalist files a story they should always "make sure their sources check out," or "Anyone will tell you the truth if you "ask them the right questions," and you may have noticed that these sentences use the word "they" to agree with a singular antecedent like journalist or anyone. Now for some of you, you might not have noticed and for some of you, you might have, your immediate reaction might have been, oh wait, eh, let me get my red pen but before you do, in order to explain the context and the history around this usage, around singular they, I would like for a moment to talk about "you." Not you the person, you the person are a vast unknowable ocean but I mean you the pronoun and how weird and transgressive and transformative it is. In many languages today there are second person pronouns for both singular and plural usage. In French, for example, we'd say tu for singular you and vous for plural you. Tu to one person, vous to many. There's also a social distinction here that was once more pronounced, where you'd say vous to social superiors and tu to close friends. Now in those languages the vous form is formal and the tu form is informal. You're addressing someone you don't know very well, you use vous. You're addressing your best buddy, you use tu. All of this is to say that English used to have the same distinction so this kind of lines up with tu and vous. Once upon a time the singular second person subject form was thou, the object form of the singular was thee. The plural second person subject form was ye or ye and the object form was you. This is where you comes in, all right, and so we, it's funny because we think of thee and thou as being more fancy and formal but really it was the opposite way, this was the informal and ye and you was the formal. Now you may recall from our video on who versus whom that I said whom was on its way out of the language. Its usage is being overtaken by who, it is now usually permissible to use who as an object, as in the song Who Do You Love by Bo Diddley. Well the same thing that's happening to whom happened to ye. Over the years its function decreased as "you" took over, it took on a subject and object role as well as singular and plural functions but it was still reserved for the highborn, it was the polite form of address used for addressing social superiors. So even though there's only one king you would refer to that king as "you" because apparently he was better than you. He wasn't, but we'll get to that. But something marvelous happened in English, the social distinction between you and thou fell away and you overtook thou and its subject form thee so now for both the singular and the plural, for the informal and the formal, for the subject and the object, all we have here is you, you, you and you. It would be as if I, me and we were all replaced by us, I cannot emphasize how revolutionary this is! In English you address a king and a peasant with the same address, under the language they are equal. Mind you the existence of a single form of direct address did not annihilate class distinctions or prejudice in the English-speaking world but it is no longer possible to encode a power relationship in English in the very specific way it once was. I cheer this development, I think it's awfully democratic and affirming of the principle that all human beings are worthy of respect, which brings us to "they." This didn't really used to be a problem in English composition, people were writing sentences like, "Everybody has their failing, "you know, and everybody has a right to do what they like with their own money," which is a Jane Austen quote by the way from Northanger Abbey. Austen used this construction, Chaucer used this construction, Shakespeare used this construction, C.S. Lewis used this construction, these are the people that we look to as paragons of correctness and of style in English literature, and they used this form without any compunctions. There is a class of grammarians who thought it would be a great idea to make English adhere to Latin grammar rules, which is where we get silly language superstitions like the prohibition on ending sentences with prepositions, making it ungrammatical to say a sentence like, "He's a guy you can rely on," or spreading the spurious rumor that you couldn't split an English infinitive, as in, you know, to boldly go. These are falsehoods and they are confusing and they are needless, pompous class markers and defeating them, and making you feel more comfortable with English is why I got into this profession in the first place. Anyway, that group of grammarians, that group decided that when speaking of a generic person we should say "he," a hypothetical person in a sentence was always "he" on the grounds that according to 16th century grammarian William Lily, "The masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine," so you'd be, you'd get sentences that began "Any judge worth his salt," or "Anyone that would say that is out of his mind," which presumably was supposed to refer to anyone. Now for centuries arguments raged over whether or not the generic "he" erased women from consideration and now with the benefit of hindsight we can say of course it did! The generic "he" isn't generic. When referring to a person whose gender is unknown or undefined by he or she, it is elegant to call such a person "they," as opposed to the ungainly "he or she" or she, like s/he, which on their own look alright but in context and especially when they're repeated tend to get a little clunky and distracting. What happened to the word "you" is happening to "they," the plural is expanding into the realm of the singular again. The language is changing because that's what languages do, and now this is something that's already done unconsciously, you see it in literature, you see it in the Bible, in formal as well as informal speech. But formalizing this understanding is what undergirds the decisions of The Economist and The Washington Post to start using singular they formally. Like if you had to ask me right now, "David, is singular they grammatical?" I'd say it's as grammatical as "you" but yeah, this is some of the context of singular they. This is where it comes from, this is why it's used, this is what it's replacing, it's replacing this generic "he" and this kind of a clunky "she or he." You can learn anything, David out.