Thursday, March 31, 2011

Another Blast in My Futile War Against the Singular They

When you allow "they" to be a singular impersonal pronoun, you end up with sentences like this:
Somewhere in the male psyche is a little voice that tells them that if they see a female online, they obviously want to see their penis.
"Their penis"? Please, stop the madness. And "they obviously want to see their"? Shoot me now.

Let me fix that for you:
Somewhere in a man's psyche is a little voice that tells him that if he sees a female online, she obviously wants to see his penis.
See? Singular. Clear. Precise.

(Yes, I know it's futile -- see how I even put that word in the title? -- but I will always insist on retaining the right to complain.)

On the other hand, the comic is funny...and sadly true.


Ray said...

I think the singular 'they' is useful to avoid introducing gendered terms when that could exclude people, but in this case? If you are talking about the _male_ psyche and online _females_, gendered terms are completely appropriate.

Shaunna said...

There is no singular 'they.' The neutral (read non-gender specific) pronouns are 'he,' 'his,' and 'him.' Just because they happen to be the same as the male-gendered pronouns doesn't mean you're excluding people when you use them properly. Keep fighting, Hornswoggler. After all, the race is not to the swift...

Andrew Wheeler said...

I'm not quite as dogmatic on this point as I may seem, since I'll admit Cheryl Morgan has some excellent points today. But "they" in the singular is a lazy writer's dream, and I insist that there's nearly always a way to recast the sentence to avoid it.

Shaunna said...

I read Cheryl's article, and while I understand her insinuation about the Chicago Manual of Style, I must argue. If we insist that we can adopt the use of 'they' as a singular pronoun without worrying about its other accepted meaning as a plural pronoun, why can't we accept 'he,' 'his,' and 'him' as non-gender specific pronouns without worrying about their other accepted uses as male pronouns? I'm just saying. (word verification: sumbrat. Ha!)

Ray said...

Because they aren't really non-gender specific? Because most of the time when someone wrote 'he', it was because 'he' really meant 'he'.

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