English language Uncategorized

The epicene pronoun

[Note: An updated post on this subject was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: David Paterson, the new governor of New York, says he had a relationship with “someone” on the public payroll, but he didn’t supervise “them.” I hear this usage from time to time. I also hear “them” used instead of “him or her.” Since when has “them” become a substitute for a singular pronoun or phrase?

A: Not in the near future! The singular “they” or “them” or “their” has been considered wrong for a couple of centuries, and it’s still a no-no in formal English. But the governor, whose grammatical relationships have come into question before on the blog, is one of millions who adulterate the language this way.

That’s the way things stand now, despite all the interesting history, leaving the careful writer with the task of finding an acceptable alternative to the singular “they.”

It’s become so common that only a few of us diehards notice anymore! That doesn’t make it right, though. “They,” “them,” and “their” are not legitimate singular pronouns, according to nearly all usage and style guides. And I don’t like using “he or she” and “him or her,” either.

To be fair, I should mention that it was once OK to use “they” to refer to indefinite pronouns like “anyone,” “anybody,” “nobody,” and “someone.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for this usage going back to the 16th century. Here’s one from Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel Tom Jones: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it.”

But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, grammarians began condemning as illogical the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, leaving us with a great big hole in English where a gender-neutral, number-neutral pronoun ought to be.

Here’s one solution: In a long piece of writing, use “him” in some places and “her” in others when referring to a generic individual. I used to work at the Des Moines Register in the mid-1970s, and that was the thinking on the Op-Ed pages. The shifts back and forth didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Another solution is to write around the problem. In other words, don’t use the pronoun at all. Example: “Someone forgot to pay the bills” (instead of “their bills”). Or: “If anyone calls, say I’m out” (instead of “tell them I’m out”).

If you must use “they,” them,” or “their,” then make the subject (or referent noun) plural instead of singular. A sentence like “Every parent dotes on their child” could instead be “All parents dote on their children.” Instead of “A person should mind their own business,” make it “People should mind their own business.”

There’s always a way! I admit that all the foregoing is really an elaborate run-around. But disregarding the plurality of “they” isn’t the answer, at least today.

Probably the grammar question of the century is “What can I use as a suitable gender-free pronoun?” The answer: There isn’t one. And new pronouns are almost impossible to introduce into a language.

In 1884, a serious attempt was made to introduce “thon,” a genderless third-person pronoun, into English, and it actually made it into dictionaries. You can still find it in 50-year-old editions. It went the way of “ne” (1850s), “heer” (1913), “ha” (pre-1936), and several other proposed epicene (i.e., genderless) pronouns.

The linguist Dennis Baron wrote a wonderful essay in the journal American Speech in 1981 called “The Epicene Pronoun: The Word That Failed,” reviewing much of this history. He notes, “Among the many reforms proposed for the English language … the creation of an epicene or bisexual pronoun stands out as the one most often advocated and attempted, and the one that has most often failed.”

The problem isn’t just finding a sex-neutral term, but also a number-neutral term, one that can serve as both singular and plural. Better minds than mine have devoted themselves to this problem to no avail. I think I know a losing battle when I see one.

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