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They Rises

April 15, 2015

The ACES conference is getting more attention; we had cause to take a moment in order to wonder about pet peeves, but one of those questions persists. Ben Zimmer explains for Wall Street Journal readers why copy editors need to get over themselves and accept the “singular they”.

Detail of 'Bug Martini' by Adam Huber, 1 April 2015.According to standard grammar, “they” and its related forms can only agree with plural antecedents. But English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and “they” has for centuries been pressed into service for that purpose, much to the grammarians’ chagrin. Now, it seems, those who have held the line against singular “they” may be easing their stance.

Mixed feelings are fair enough; my objection to the singular they is simply that while the larger academic argument about the lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun is exactly useful, it is also true that the singular “they” has always, in my experience, been simply about sloth, and much like “transition” as a verb, is intended to improve people’s vocabularies by reducing them.

I cannot speak for the copy editors; I do not and cannot count myself among their numbers. Still, though, if the increasing acceptance of the singular they Mr. Zimmer suggests is actually occurring, we can still expect our manuscripts to flame with red ink over that many of our singular theys. If this is the reason we should adopt the term, then let us adopt the term; but let us not replace “he” and “she” entirely. The evolution of language is supposed to improve communication, not muck it all up.

―bd

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Image note: Detail of Bug Martini by Adam Huber, 1 April 2015.

Zimmer, Ben. “Can ‘They’ Be Accepted as a Singular Pronoun?” The Wall Street Journal. 10 April 2015.

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