Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Singularization of They

(A version of this article appeared recently in the October edition of Lexpert).

The singularization of “they”


Howard Richler

Although the English language offers its speaker a large vocabulary, it is missing some useful words particularly in the realm of referencing other people. For example, many people are not comfortable with referencing their in-laws as Mom and Dad, yet are not comfortable with calling them by their first names. Some term of endearment more accurate than Mom or Dad would fill this void.

The English language also lacks a name for unmarried persons who share a

domestic and romantic relationship. Terms like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” sound adolescent, “lover” is too blatant, “lady friend” and “gentlemen” are euphemistic and “significant other” is meaningless. Ironically, Quebec French has solved this problem by importing the English word “chum” to fulfill this vocabulary need. Many other words are used in English to refer to this relationship, such as “partner,” “companion,” and “cohabitor” but all of them are either euphemistic-sounding or inaccurate. In 1980 the U.S. Census Bureau invented the acronym POSSLQ which accurately describes this relationship. It stands for “Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters.” Not surprisingly, the term is not employed outside of bureaucratic venues.

Seeing that the Quebec French has solved this problem by usurping the English word “chum.” I suggest we exact retribution by appropriating a French word. My suggestion is the word “co-vivant.” English already uses the French term “bon vivant” to refer to someone who enjoys the “good life,” and putting the prefix “co” in front of “vivant” highlights the idea that one’s pleasures should be shared -the essence of a relationship.

English also lacks a neutral third person singular pronoun. Thus in the sentence “If anyone wants a hamburger ___ can have one,” we have a choice of using either the words “he” or “she” in which case we may be making an incorrect statement as to gender; or we can use the word “they” in which case “they” is seemingly not in agreement with its singular antecedent “anyone.” Saying “he or she” solves this problem but its usage is somewhat cumbersome.

Contrary to popular opinion, the generic “he” is not a long-established usage in the English language. It was not until the 18th century that this rule appeared in English grammar books and it was not until the 19th century that the rule became entrenched. In fact, in 1850 an Act of Parliament in England gave official sanction to this recently established concept of the generic “he.” Parliament ordained that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.”

As language is primarily a tool to communicate, the generic “he” is clearly faulty because it provides false or misleading information about the sex of the referents. For example, if one says “Everyone on the choir raised his voice in song,” one is giving the impression that it is an all male ensemble.

Many languages avoid sex designation in pronouns by having a word such as the Turkish o which can refer to “he or “she.” Similarly in Finnish hän can refer to a man or a woman. In English, over eighty words have been suggested to cover this situation such as “te,” “ter,” “tem,” “hesh,” “co,” “shem,” and “thon,” but none of them has acquired much currency. In fact, when Webster's International Dictionary , Second Edition was published in 1934 the word “thon” was listed but when the Third Edition was released in 1962 this entry was not included because hardly anyone had used this new pronoun in the interim. Languages are resistant to accepting new words that are central to their grammar.

What to do? For me, the issue is clear. Pronoun envy aside, the intent of language is to communicate, and by using “he” or “his” we may be imparting incorrect or misleading information about the sex of the participants. John McWhorter, in The Word on the Street, says that “they” is “singular as well as plural for the simple reason that the language has changed and made it so. The idea that ‘they’ is only a plural pronoun is an illusion based on treating the English of one thousand years ago as if it was somehow hallowed, rather than just one arbitrary stage of an endless evolution over time.” After all, centuries ago a distinction was made between “thou and “you,” with the former referring to a second person singular pronoun and the latter to a second person plural pronoun, but by the 17th century “thou” fell into disuse in standard English.

I don’t expect everyone is going to agree with me on this issue. To each their own.

Howard's next book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published in 2013.

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