ilona the pest

insecurity + narcissism = awesome!

Monday, September 03, 2007

they is awesome

i wholly embrace the use of the third-person plural ("they") to represent a gender-neutral third-person singular -- as in, "if i were to get a new roommate, they would have to like cats." by my unscientific estimation, at least 90% of americans use "they" in that sense in casual speech, but most learned folks -- my old foes, the prescriptivists -- find it abhorrent and uneducated in written form. "it's just wrong!" they exclaim. "don't those ignorant fools realize that it's a plural? it simply meaningless and confusing to pretend it's a singular."

actually, though, the pronoun conveys its intended meaning perfectly well. everyone understands what it means in context. and furthermore, it serves a very useful function, since english otherwise lacks a convenient and polite way to refer to absent or imaginary humans in a gender-neutral way. ("it" is considered impolite, since we only use it to refer to non-human nouns like animals, objects or concepts; "he" is sexist, and "he or she" awkward.)

further, there's plenty of historical precedent for this kind of change. for instance, ever wonder why we used to say "thee" and "thou" instead of "you"? well, "thou" used to be the singular versions of the second-person pronoun, and "you" the plural. "thou" is a cognate of the french tu and german du. "you" was originally the plural, which later began to be used as the formal version of the singular. again, think of french vous or german sie, which serve both as the plural and the formal singular. over time, we dropped the old singular/informal form altogether, probably out of a growing egalitarianism. (and now we have to invent new second-person plurals, like "y'all", to fill in that lexical gap.)

my point is that the elements of our language are constantly shifting to take on new useful roles. to adopt such new forms isn't incorrect or sloppy -- it's natural and useful. those shifts help our language more accurately reflect our reality and the concepts we want to express, which is the whole point of language, after all.

if anyone disagrees with me, they're an idiot. :) rather, they're standing in the way of progress for the sake of tradition -- or, less charitably, to preserve the power of that exclusive minority with enough education to mimic perfectly the archaic conventions of our language.


  • At 3:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What about "thy"? How does that fall into all this?

  • At 3:50 PM, Blogger ilona said…

    What about "thy"?

    "thy" was the second-person singular/familiar genitive form -- the equivalent of "your". check out this table for reference:

    (or are you just making a pun because "thy" sounds a lot like like "they"?)

  • At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Do you still think Ebonics should be deemed acceptable? And at your lawfirm, would you hire someone to be a paralegal or legal secretary who was only schooled in Ebonics?

  • At 3:47 PM, Blogger Sam said…

    Lona, what do you think about arbritration clauses being used to help people out when they face foreclosure?


  • At 5:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thee, Thou and Thy is all Olde English if I remember rightly who gives two hoots if "they" dont speak properly as long as you understand what "they" are saying.

    America made some majorly messed up words such as winningest one of the most stupid words I've ever heard.

    What you think of that Ilona?!

  • At 10:27 PM, Blogger Witchy said…

    What about my favorite s/he?

  • At 5:55 PM, Blogger Danny said…

    I have this conversation with myself about thirty times a day.


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