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"They" as a Singular, Gender-neutral Pronoun

Dean Pomerleau

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I don't know if anyone noticed, but in this post about a hypothetical 90 year-old CR practitioner, I started out referencing the individual as "he/she". Then I switched to "they", as in:


Assume he/she has been practicing CR quite seriously for several decades, and have a thin physique to show for it (BMI ~18.5). For the last few years they've been feeling the effects of aging - no overt illnesses or disabilities yet, but they are starting to feel older and their biomarkers are starting to turn south. What would you tell them? Stay the course and continue hitting CR hard? Or dial back and try to gain some weight?
I fretted over the decision, realizing that grammatically it is incorrect to use "they" and its variants as a singular pronoun. But it's just such a pain to use a gender neutral bastardization like "he/she" or the many crazy variants like (s)he, s/he, zhe, ze, etc. 
Turns out, I'm not alone in my tendency to use "they" as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. In fact, several respected authors, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and George Bernard Shaw used "they" as a singular pronoun in their writing.
But even better, the American Dialect Society voted the "singular they" as their 2015 word of the year during their annual meeting last week. From the Society's press release announcing the outcome of their vote:
The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. In 2015, singular they was embraced by the Washington Post style guide. Bill Walsh, copy editor for the Post, described it as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
While editors have increasingly moved to accepting singular they when used in a generic fashion, voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as “non-binary” in gender terms.
“In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation,” Zimmer said. “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”


So it appears we can all feel justified in skipping the awkward gender-neutral singular pronouns and just going with 'they' from now on. 


I'm fascinated by the evolution of language. My wife is a stickler for grammar (I tell her she's aspiring to be the next grammar girl) and we often get into debates about whether or not certain widely-used, but technically grammatically 'incorrect', constructs are legitimate to use or not. She'll be interested to learn about this one. 


On a language-related note - I'm also fascinated about how we come to know grammar rules at all, particularly subtle ones, like:


Why do we "learn to play the piano" (or violin, drums, flute or any other musical instrument), but not "learn to play the baseball" (same for any other sport / games, referred to by their ball or objects of use- football, basketball, foosball, checkers, marbles, etc).


Why do we use "math" in American English when its an abbreviation for mathematics and unlike the British, who use "maths"?



Or, which of these two statements seems correct?


"I saw the big red dog."

"I saw the red big dog."   


It works for other colors and size adjectives as well, and not just dogs. Why is the first so much more "right" than the second, at least to native speakers of English - or is it just American English?


We seem to follow implicit rules of grammar that we not only can't articulate, but don't even know we harbor until they are pointed out to us.


Several philosophers/ethicists have observed that ethical theories are like grammatical theories in being implicit and pre-rational - you know what's right and what's wrong when you see (or hear) it, but you can't articulate why.


Jonathan Haidt's work on "moral dumbfounding" is a good example. See this amusing example of moral dumbfounding starting at 8:07 in this video:






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A follow up on "they" as a singular gender-neutral pronoun (SGNP), and adjective ordering.


Not surprisingly, the real grammar girl has blogged about "they", and back in 2011 (grudgingly) acknowledged that we're eventually headed towards acceptance of "they" as a SGBP:


t takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use "they" with a singular antecedent today. I could almost feel people's blood pressure rising as I started to imply that it is OK to use "they."


It seems we've progressed along that path quite a bit since 2011!


On the topic of adjective order - apparently there is a well-recognized ordering of different adjective categories, and they (try to) teach this stuff to ESL students:


The proper order of adjectives is listed below along with some examples for each category.
  1. Determiners – a, an, the, my, your, several, etc.
  2. Observations – lovely, boring, stimulating, etc.
Size – tiny, small, huge, etc. Shape – round, square, rectangular, etc. Age – old, new, ancient, etc. Color – red, blue, green, etc. Origin – British, American, Mexican, etc. Material – gold, copper, silk, etc. Qualifier – limiters for compound nouns.
Here are some examples:
"The interesting, small, rectangular, blue car is parked in my space."
"I bought a beautiful, long, red, Italian, silk tie."
"My father lives in a lovely, gigantic, ancient, brick house."
"I have an annoying, small, circular, American, tin, alarm clock that wakes me up."
"Let’s order a delicious, huge, rectangular, pepperoni pizza."
"We all love our smart, petite, British teacher."
"They all received several dazzling, small, ancient, gold coins."
"She owns a stunning, large, old, brown dog named Boris."
Who knew!  They didn't teach this stuff back when I was in (grammar!) school. We just picked it up along the way, as a native English speaker. I feel sorry for someone trying to learn English as a second language...
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