Assorted Opinions: They
2020 seems a bad time for the Democrats to become the party of pronouns.
History shows, of course, that they can pull it off, this snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory…
And liberal forces appear to be gathering towards a thrust at this preoccupation. Just to make it all as bad as possible, somewhere in the background, in a Teaching and Learning environment of seminars and retreats, or text-message exchanges, the campaign seems moving towards “they” as the sensitive gender-neutral choice. This phenomenon (not the usage of they in the informal, or even the fraughtly political sense, but the imposition of it on the unwilling) is in its sprouting state, a fresh twig on the PC tree. But when the flowers are produced, they petal themselves thus: the fault shifts onto all of us, and the punishment for transgression is harsh.
And, properly, in this matter there’s no fault at all.
Wishing to be addressed according to your preference has never been outside existing rules; nor, within those rules, is it unfair or burdensome to others. The propagandist version of victimhood plows right over the fact that everyone—me, you, they, too—has responsibilities as well as rights. Politeness, which is the understructure of social order, requires that the person with the nonstandard need or preference state it, and at least attempt continued good humor about it…because for one, a machine can do this trick. Software can utilize the kind-sounding voice, the gratifying social phrase, the please and thank-you, so that the human who can’t/won’t puts herself at a disadvantage.
Universities, those not already fallen to it, will be teetering mightily on the brink of temptation, to make institutionalized policy of asking, “What are your pronouns?” Health care centers, and providers of social services, are likely as well to astonish and offend many of their clients by forcing their staffs to ask this of everyone.
The cracks in published English began in the interwar period after WWI. Novels, no longer novel, for being popularized through decades of train travel, were loosed from the constraint of being didactic towards the public, their good people always behaving correctly, bad people villainously, all surviving characters groping their way to the moral. Now stories of unfamiliar types began to catch editors’ eyes. And the movies became influential, the camera’s eye view, those shorthand ways discovered by cinematic storytellers, to jump from trope to trope, from telling snatch of dialogue to telling snatch of dialogue.
Particularly by the early ’70s, formality had come to be seen synonymous with “stuffy”. They as an indefinite pronoun applied to individuals is commonplace in speech. And as formality relaxed, it became possible for writers not to have “errors” in dialogue and close narrative edited out; not to require a character’s improper grammar be larded with heavy signifiers of “dialect”.
Leaping ahead, then. When we began to write for the internet, we all, and each, had to find our voices. Who are you when you’re writing as yourself, but not about yourself? The voice you choose will be artificial to a degree. You’re international; you’re ageless, but you don’t wish to dumb yourself down. You’re funny and friendly, with luck; but you don’t wish to pander and cater. And the first rule for public communication is Clarity.
They denied that the emails contained classified material when they were being moved from their original location to the newer one, or that their servers were those which had been breached.
This is nice, formal English, but it doesn’t make clear whether we’re talking about people (much less an individual), emails, or servers, or are flowing from one to the next. If your goal is to inform the public and not spread propaganda, you would rather be stuffy and repetitive, than obscurant and insinuative.
Or, take fiction:
They were waiting in line for coffee, when Taylor suggested to Merrill they go down the block to the other Starbucks, and call them if the line was shorter.
Which illustrates why xe or thon would, for the sake of inclusiveness, be infinitely preferable to they. The plural pronoun has a grammatical function that for clarity’s sake can’t be compromised. If Taylor or Merrill or both prefer a neutral pronoun, making it “they” gives the writer quite a job, and imposes a weird patchwork construction on the story. They is not specifically neutral, it is narrowly or broadly encompassing. They are a group; they are a collective. The neutral individual is another matter.
It’s worth thinking about where this impulse comes from.
Partly, as mentioned, a modern writer’s self-consciousness, that “Each of us must do his duty” sounds prim. Psychologically, it can feel confrontational designating an actor, easier to duck…as might be the case when only one or two people stand out from the group.
“Whoever wants vegan has to decide if she can trust the kitchen not to cook her veggie burger on the same grill…”
But the casualness of they as singular, and the fact that it’s used for referencing people vaguely, can have a diminutive effect. Consider this sentence from the OED blog’s treatment of the question:
Do you not feel yourself tuning out just a little, your brain deciding this story takes place at a remove, the teacher not an actor but a potential actor at best? Most of all, I think, we use they because the types of sentences that cause the trouble are speculative or conditional. The hard rules of English have it that each, every, no one, anyone, someone, etc., are singular, but cognitively, they aren’t. We’re really saying any of certain putative persons who belongs to a general category of persons.
We can imagine a leader, addressing a group setting out on a hike:
“Each of you who plans to go needs to read their handbook. Everyone has to have their stuff packed and ready. No one who forgets to bring what’s on their list better expect someone else to pick up the slack. Anyone who has a medical issue needs to file their paperwork. Someone who isn’t careful could make themselves a danger to everyone else…”
And none of this would strike us off-key, if it were only dialogue. If we were writing the instruction book ourselves, we’d need some workarounds to hit the professional note.
Those who plan to go are expected to have read this booklet. All equipment must be packed and ready. Do not fail to utilize the checklist; when essential items are forgotten, fellow hikers may not be able to provide them. Those with medical issues must file the necessary forms. Take care to follow the guide’s instructions; accidents can be costly to the entire group.
HBO recently debuted their show, Watchmen, with a tagline: The uniform a person wears changes them. In this case, the awkwardness isn’t even them, so much as the tepid phrase “a person”.
The uniform you wear changes you. It’s a tactic of persuasion (but all writing is persuasion), to invite the reader to put him/herself (zeself, thonself) in the shoes of…usually someone considering buying a product.
You want whiter teeth and minty-fresh breath! (Not, a person wants their teeth white and their breath minty-fresh.) We demand change! (Not, a person demands…etc.)
Premature adoption is often the defeat of progress. The foundation of general agreement needs to be there, before the structure of rules can be superimposed. Aside from the fact that many present users of the singular they specify doing so for political reasons, which amounts to wanting to be in someone’s face, the “get used to it” argument tends to be rejected, with prejudice.
It’s reasonable to support a neutral pronoun, reasonable to use one, but equally reasonable not to, where the actor is theoretical, or of unknown character. It’s reasonable to respect people, but respect means me to you, and you to me; us to them, and them to us, not my way over yours. So we’re left with logic, the best reason of all to do things, therefore the most neglected—which suggests a plural used for a singular works only where the need for clarity is a very loose one.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)