“THEY”—AN APOLOGY. Kids, I had arguments with each of you when you were in middle school and high school about whether you could properly use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun (that is, saying, “If a student drops their book.”) I think I was a little uneasy at the time, but I didn’t let on. I was sure that this was the kind of usage that English teachers and copy editors had their knives out for (or “for which they had their knives out.”) I also didn’t tell you that I would have preferred that “they” was acceptable because it would have been useful. McWhorter thinks the rule forbidding “they” is as foolish as the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. But he also points out that the usage of “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun goes back to the 1400’s. Shakespeare uses it in the The Comedy of Errors. Thackeray uses it in Vanity Fair. If I had known about these long-standing precedents, I still would have advised you not to challenge English teachers. For myself, since I am not going to be facing any more English teachers, I intend to use “they” more often.

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2 Responses to “THEY”—AN APOLOGY.

  1. Annalisa says:

    Thank you, Dad! Not that I was holding my breath for an apology (as if you needed to give one), but it’s really cool to have this addressed all this time later. I am really happy I got you that book, because now I’m getting to learn the best bits. Hmm, now we just gotta wait for Mom to come around to this way of thinking. She was harder on me than you, as I recall, about the “they” thing–she’d even gag and make faces when I used it out loud.

  2. Mary Jane Schaefer says:

    What does he mean he’s not going to be facing any more English teachers? At least one! And a prescriptivist at that!

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