What does the title of this post inform you about “they”? Enough to know that they raised an issue, but not enough to tell you who they might be. And in the process, enough to make it sound wrong to the point of difficulty. It’s almost painful to read so awkward a sentence. But for reasons that elude me, Farhad Manjoo, the New York Times tech columnist, decided to drive across three lanes, over the median, straight into linguistic oncoming traffic.
Call Me ‘They’
The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.
Putting aside Farhad’s call to action, “let’s all use it,” as if they’s somebody’s thought leader on such matters as trendy linguistics, they’s hardly the first to suggest the de-genderization of pronouns. People include their pronouns in their twitter bios. Profs are directed to ask students for their pronouns on the first day of class. I’ve even seen pronouns in emails from lawyers next to their names. It tells me something about them, and what it tells me has nothing to do with their particular choice of pronouns.
Raising such a call to action raises two obvious questions: why, and why not?
“If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs … there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue,” writes Farhad Manjoo in a recent column, “Call Me ‘They.’” They make the case for adopting gender-neutral pronouns for reasons both cultural and linguistic, but ultimately in the name of inclusivity.
There was no linguistic reason proffered. There was linguistic rationalization to counter the obvious problem that the use of the neutral, plural wasn’t some mad, zany, new-fangled notion.
Other than plainly intolerant people, there’s only one group that harbors doubts about the singular “they”: grammarians. If you’re one of those people David Foster Wallace called a “snoot,” Lyft’s use of “them” to refer to one specific Juan rings grammatically icky to you. The singular, gender nonspecific “they” has been common in English as long as people have spoken English, but since the 18th century, grammar stylists have discouraged it on the grounds that “they” has to be plural. That’s why institutions that cater to snoots generally discourage it.
Hundreds of years ago, some people used the singular “they,” so it’s not new, but old. We’re just using good ol’ standard English, Shakespeare-style. And Lyft uses it too, and aren’t Lyft and Uber your lingusitic leaders?
That’s probably why the singular, gender-neutral “they” is common not just in transgender and nonbinary communities, for whom it is necessary, but also in mainstream usage, where it is rapidly becoming a standard way we refer to all people.
If its commonly used by 0.6% of the population, that surely makes it the new normal, right? But the real reason is that it’s become cultural beacon, where its neutrality strips the genderization, not to mention singularization, from the language. It’s a symbol of one’s dedication to
symbolism equality, even though feminists don’t like it because it erased their womanhood by denying them use of the “she” pronoun.
It’s also worth noting that calling it “icky” seeks to trivialize it; after all, “icky” is such a petty problem, like being afraid of icky spiders. You’re not afraid of icky spiders, are you? That leaves only “intolerance” as a reason to resist, according to Farhad, which brings him to his real argument: this is the woke way, and if you refuse to accept it, you’re a bigot.
But Farhad, and the grammarians and linguists, and even the people going with the “icky” argument because it just reads and sounds so awful to anyone with an eighth grade education, fail to present the rather obvious “why not?” argument.
Words are tools of communication. Some may use them to signal their virtue, or as weapons to signal the offensiveness of others, or even call them “violence” even though they can’t physically cut anyone and can only metaphorically cut if you want them to. As tools of communication, the sharper they are, the more effectively they work.
The call to eliminate precision is to blunt the tools. Words don’t just grate on the eyes and ears, but they leave us less capable of understanding what we’re talking about. Does “they” refer to one person or two? Does “they” refer to the male or female at issue? There are certainly variations that make “he” unhelpful, such as when we’re talking about more than one male, but that imprecision would be improved by more precise words, not less.
Since we’re lawyers, however, we begin with the painful awareness of how dull our tools are already. Legal writing, from the Constitution to statutes, from briefs to opinions, from contracts to notices, all use words in an attempt to make something crystal clear. And fails miserably almost all the time, which is why most of our efforts are directed to arguing about what words, phrases and sentences mean.
So in answer to Farhad’s “what’s the harm” in being nice to those who claim that the use of a pronoun not of their choosing causes them pain, trauma and erases their existence, as if their existence somehow depends on what word other people use when they’re not present, I channel my inner Orwell and reply “clarity.” We are worse for language that’s less clear rather than more clear, even if language could be more clear than it is now.
But what about tolerance? If someone tells you that a word hurts them, to use it is to hurt them. Or at least to refuse to acknowledge their claim that it’s hurtful.
There is another way to look at it. Rather than seeing a change in common linguistic syntax as a minority trying to impose its will on the majority, try to see it as the majority being more compassionate toward a traditionally oppressed minority.
Here’s the thing, be as nonbinary as you want to be. Wear culottes. Drive a Subaru. Eat kale donuts, if you must. I will defend your right to do so. But it’s not compassion to test people’s willingness to pervert clarity; it’s affectation and indulgence.
She dropped her glove, to prove his love, then looked at him and smiled;
He bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:
The leap was quick, return was quick, he has regained his place,
Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the lady’s face.
“By God!” said Francis, “rightly done!” and he rose from where he sat:
“No love,” quoth he, “but vanity, sets love a task like that.”