Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Down with Singular “They”

I hope that I’m not cancelled by the Woke community for expressing this opinion. It’s not just J. K. Rowling or Margaret Atwood or Steven Lewis who face the threat of cancellation for expressing an opinion that inadvertently offends someone; humble folk like me can be cancelled as well. A friend’s daughter feels threatened, not even because she disagreed with an opinion on Facebook, but because she failed to support it. If I lose even half my readers for committing a small act of microaggression, I will have only three left.

But I must speak out against the general use of the singular “they”. Recently I was reading a story about a mail deliverer who encountered a savage dog. I read that they managed to escape the dog, and I thought, whoops, I didn’t realize there were two of them. I must have missed the appearance of a second person. But no, it was a singular “they”.  There was only one person. For some reason the writer was reluctant, or even afraid, to identify the mail deliverer as male or female in the beginning and then use the masculine or feminine singular pronoun thereafter.

There has to be a balance, doesn’t there, between discretion and clarity? Perhaps the writer thought that the sex of the mail deliverer was irrelevant, or perhaps the mail deliverer had not wished to be identified as either male or female, but the reader needs to know whether there was one person, or more. Unfortunately, we don’t have a singular pronoun in English that will stand for a person of either or neither sex, but please, let’s not use the pronoun “they”, which for many of us still denotes (and connotes) plurality. In the story that I read, if the writer had not wished to specify the sex of the mail deliverer, the writer could have avoided the pronoun altogether by repeating the noun, as I just did. A bit awkward, but better than confusion or misinformation. But 98% of the time, the subject of the story will be happy to be identified as he or she, so why not relate that information to the reader?

Some people may wish to be referred to as “they” in the singular, and that is fine with me, but in other circumstances, where it’s possible and appropriate to use “he” or “she”, let’s do it. I know that Shakespeare is supposed to have used a singular “they”, but I’m sure that Hamlet would have said:

To yield or not to yield, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
These foul abuses of our native tongue,
Remaining mute, forsooth, in fear of being 
Cancelléd, in consequence of having caused
Offence, however inadvertently,
To Someone with a Different Point of View. —
Or to take arms against Grammatical
Absurdity, like Plural Pronouns forced
To play a different role against
Their very nature: a Singular
Obscenity, Unnatural and Foul.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I guess we are of a certain age but this has never made any sense to me because of the confusion it can cause. Better to create a new word or just use the person's name or occupation as you suggest above.