When, a couple of days ago, I suggested accepting they as a singular to provide the epicene pronoun English otherwise lacks, there was the sort of brouhaha that one encounters whenever some minor idol is toppled from its plinth.
It occurs to me that the comments fell immediately into the stereotyped responses in disputes over usage and that I could report them here, perhaps using them as a template for responses to further kerfuffles. You know, like Edmund Wilson's postcard responding to requests. Just reply with a link to this post and cite the appropriate number.
Some of the responses from Facebook and elsewhere:
1. I'm sorry, but I still cringe when "they" is used for the singular.
You're still allowed your own tastes and preferences. Acknowledging that black English is a dialect of English does not compel you to use black English yourself. You can allow other people to use ain't even if it never passes your lips. It's still the same democratic language it always was. The question is whether you get to impose some personal stylistic preference on other people as a rule. Generally, not.
2. Never! It's an abomination. I will keep fighting it till my dying day.
No, it's not. Shooting twenty schoolchildren with a semiautomatic rifle is an abomination. Invading Iraq over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, leading to the deaths and maimings of thousands of Americans and untold tens of thousands of Iraqis, is an abomination. Singular they is at the most a minor solecism, and the evidence suggests that it is not even that. This sort of emotional reaction is typically a means of avoiding examination of the evidence.
3. But it's a Rule.
As Thoreau observed, "Any fool can make a rule and every fool will mind it." Many of the "rules" sticklers cite are constructs not supported by empirical examination of the language. The rule against ending sentences with prepositions was concocted to make English resemble Latin. The split infinitive rule and the "split verb" rule and all the other zombie rules, the things that even prescriptivists like Bryan Garner call superstitions, do not deserve respect.
4. The worrier in me asks, "What next? Using 'comprise' when one means 'compose'? Starting sentences with a numeral?"
Evidently the Rules constitute a great levee or dike. Pop one out, and Holland will be at the bottom of the sea again. This is another dodge to avoid looking at the empirical evidence in order to make informed judgments.
5. The clients pay the bills. Mine don't allow singular "they," so plural it shall stay.
Ah yes, the client, the boss, the stylebook. I feel for the editor with that client/boss/stylebook. I've worked for more than thirty years as a newspaper copy editor, during which time it has fallen to my unhappy lot to enforce all manner of idiotic ukases. Perhaps it is possible to reason with the client or the boss; I have even attempted to reason with the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook, with mixed results.
6. I don't care that Jane Austen used it.
Arguing from history is tricky. Jane Austen used any one ... they. She also used her's. Why cite her for the one but not the other? Spend enough time with the OED and you'll find that nearly everything possible has popped up at one time or another. That's why Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage is so useful on this point. Its entry on the singular they demonstrates a consistent pattern of use by established writers over a span of centuries. That is the benefit you can get from empirical investigation instead of rule-mongering.
7.The singular "they", ignoring number agreement between subject and predicate, exists to replace the inclusive "he" for nakedly political–specifically feminist–reasons. Top-down substitutes, like "s/he" and "thon" having failed, the speech of illiterates provides something that works bottom up.
It's refreshing when a responder is frank about their own political preferences, since the point in these disputes so often comes down to some political issue, some point of status. It also makes the argument easier to puncture, viz., singular they has been current since the time of Chaucer, who was evidently little influenced by Betty Friedan. Or that the speech of illiterates does work bottom-up in the language, which is how we got from Anglo-Saxon to modern English. As with individual stylistic preferences, people are entitled to hold political views. Or that sensitivity to sexism and other "politically correct" issues has become a component of public manners rather than an imposition by a cabal. As with individual stylistic preferences, people are entitled to hold political views. But changes in language usage are normal, and they do not endanger civilization.
8. But the sticklers will complain.
Why, in matters of language usage, do we truckle to ignorance? We don't in science (except on Texas school boards and the Tennessee Legislature and other places where ignorance runs riot). Let them complain. They like to complain. Complaining reinforces their fancied importance and status as Defenders of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Then just go about your business as before.
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