The Washington Post has announced the word of the year. The word chosen is a “significant term or word” that influences our language and culture. The word is chosen by more than 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The word is “they,” used as a singular, and as a gender neutral word. Their follows the same rule, then. A runner-up was “on fleek.”
Before we get tangled up in arguments, let me remind you that this is the Washington Post’s idea. It does not give
everyone else permission to use it. A dictionary is not a permission slip from the Powers That Be, a dictionary tells you what a word means right now, and how it is used in today’s culture. There are many words in the dictionary that you shouldn’t use.
To make matters worse, The Washington Post has changed their style sheet to include “they” as a singular pronoun.
You may not care, but give this a thought. I’m all for gender neutrality, and I am a big fan of inventing new words for new ideas. Gender neutrality is an important issue and deserves more than forcing a few pronouns to do the work that should be done by many.
They is not singular. He, she, and it are singular. By forcing they to mean a singular, we are left without a plural for he, she, and it. (No word on what to do with them, the object form of they.)
Here’s why I am against the change: I don’t think it’s the right word to change. Let me explain (please.)
The mistake that most people make is the dreaded subject/verb agreement problem with the word everyone or everybody. Example: “Everyone needs to wear their coat in winter,” is wrong. Everyone is a singular pronoun and their is plural. You can’t mix them in a sentence.
While a lot of people were strangling the language with “Everyone needs to wear his/her coat in winter,” I wrote, “Everyone needs to wear a coat in winter,” avoiding the problem entirely. That’s the real answer. But it takes a lot of work. And I am the first person to admit, not every sentence can be re-written that easily.
But there is an easier solution. First, let’s understand the problem. Certain words are always singular, including
They always take a singular verb. Example: Nobody IS going to love the fallout of this change. Everybody IS taking about it, but few really care.
There are certain subject nouns that are always plural, including
Example: Others ARE coming for your writing soul. Many ARE going to writing hell for this decision.
With me so far? What makes the word their a problem is a sentence like, “Everyone (singular) must do their (plural) homework.”
It’s not the word they or their that’s a problem and that should be changed, it’s the subject pronoun. We could make everybody plural, instead of singular, allowing the use of “their” and clear up the whole mess without struggling so hard. They is already gender neutral. Want to see? “Enrico and Gretchen met at the corner. They are going to the ballgame.” No problem.
If we allow a mix of singular and plural pronouns in a sentence, we are not helping the language, we are heading toward more confusion. Singular subjects take singular verbs. If The Washington Post has its way, this sentence will be grammatically correct: “They is enjoying the destruction of the English language.”
Please, Washington Post, let’s not trip up the language by making they and their singular. It leaves us without a plural for it, and it makes them an orphan word.
—Quinn McDonald is a trainer in grammar and business writing. She is fighting this one. She has fully accepted that you now may start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, and split infinitive will not cause damage to the energizer core, but pronouns keep the language clear, and she’s not having any of this.