It’s THEY. Why would that have been chosen as the WOTY? Everyone knows what they means, don’t they? Look at that last sentence I wrote: Everyone is singular and they is a plural pronoun. Not so long ago, that would have been considered a grammatical error. However, it’s very common for people to use that “incorrect” construction, the singular they, in speech and in everyday informal writing.
But Merriam-Webster is calling attention to this use of they for a serious reason. The LGBTQ community has been advocating for an inclusive pronoun that does not refer to any specific gender. Trans people are troubled by the use of he and him or she and her; Jamie may have been assigned one gender at birth but later transitioned to another gender. Do we refer to Jamie as she or as he? Or is Jamie gender-fluid? Sometimes, Jamie may even be referred to by the de-humanizing pronoun it.
To be respectful of the variety of human identity and sexual orientations, they has been adopted to represent everyone. If you don’t know what pronoun a person prefers, my thinking is that they would welcome you asking them.
Language changes. All languages change. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson all used they/them/their in their writing when referring to one person. But then The Grammarians (you know, people like me) insisted on strict pronoun agreement: singular with a singular referent, plural with plural. I no longer do. If a person is comfortable using they as their pronoun, I respect that. I hope you’ll think about what making this small gesture might mean to that person.
You know I’m a grammar nut, right? Grammatical errors are like fingernails on a blackboard to my delicate ears. Therefore, I was surprised to hear a story on today’s edition of “All Things Considered” dealing with gender-neutral pronouns and how some kids in Baltimore may ( repeat, may) have solved the problem.
Here’s the problem: The masculine pronoun used to be acceptable in all cases until some uppity women (I was one of them) objected to sentences such as, “Everyone brought his outline to the meeting,” when some of the people at the meeting were female.
In the late 19th century, a concocted word, “thon,” was floated to solve the problem; supposedly it stood for “that one.” Since “thon” didn’t fly, sentences like, “Everyone brought his or her outline to the meeting” started being substituted. However, although grammatically correct, it’s very awkward,
Back to the kids in Baltimore: Teachers noticed them using the word “yo” to take the place of pronouns, both masculine and feminine. “Yo moved my backpack!” “Don’t go near yo backpack!” “Yo lives in the building next to me.”
This word certainly eliminates having to using gender-specific pronouns. To my ear, it sounds awful, but some linguists think it may spread from Baltimore, particularly if celebrities start using it.
Here’s my prediction: Although “everyone/their” is still technically ungrammatical by 2013 standards, it is such a commonplace construction that it very well may become standard before too long. It eliminates gender and avoids having to invent some new pronoun to take the place of “he/she” and “his/her.”
What’s your take on “yo”? Do you think it is the gender-neutral pronoun of the future?