If you’ve been studying English for a while, you know that parts of speech such as verbs, nouns, and pronouns are supposed to live in harmony. That means they need to “agree” with each other in a sentence—a rule called parallelism.
You don’t need to know the “ism” that denotes the rule. I only bring it up so that you’ll know it is a rule, one that’s essential in both spoken and written English.
But rules are meant to be broken, as the late General Douglas MacArthur famously said. Can you spot the traditional rule I’m breaking in the following sentence?
If a person loses their cell phone on the subway, the best course of action is to get in touch with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
Why should we assume that person is a “he” and say “his” cell phone? For centuries, that’s exactly how we handled gender in speech: We swept everything under the masculine rug. Our excuse? Parallelism. If the subject of a sentence is singular, any pronoun that comes later in the sentence needs to agree with it. And “he” won the contest as the singular pronoun of choice. Women, used to being second-class citizens, didn’t seem to mind being thrown in with men. That’s just the way things were, right?
Indeed it was, until the status of women began to change in the late 1960s, in tandem with other major cultural shifts in the United States and across Europe. Fifty years later, using “he” as a stand-in for diverse people is no long acceptable.
For a while, in the late 20th century, instead of just he, we used he or she, or even he/she:
When a new patient comes to Dr. Smith’s office, he/she will need to fill out a comprehensive medical history form.
However, this practice is gradually going by the wayside in favor of another pronoun: they.
What!? Isn’t they the 3rd person plural pronoun?
The answer is yes—but lately, they has been doing double duty as a 3rd person singular pronoun as well. They allows us to avoid the awkwardness of he or she or he/she. No self-respecting speaker of English uses these graceless combination pronouns in speech. And they’re even clumsier in written English.
They also serves a more meaningful purpose: It prevents women from disappearing into he.
The next person in line should have their passport or other picture ID ready.
They and their are also favored by members of the transgender and other queer communities that resent being rigidly classified as strictly male or strictly female. Whatever your views on gender and sexuality, these communities are part of our world—and because the United States is still a democracy, everybody gets to participate in the political, cultural, and even linguistic life of their country—at least in theory!
What do you think? Is “they singular” a good idea?
Parallelism – the use of components in a sentence that are grammatically the same or similar in their construction, sound, meaning, or meter
Denote – be a sign of; indicate
Stand-in – replacement, substitute, or proxy
Going by the wayside – being discarded, disappearing
Double duty – designed to fill two functions
Clumsy – awkward in movement or manner
Queer – an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities
Posted on July 9, 2017
by Margaret Crane filed under