Is They Right Or Is They Not?

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.”

28 thoughts on “Is They Right Or Is They Not?

  1. Skink

    You have a giant error in this post. I’ll make the correction:

    They dropped theys glove, to prove they love, then looked at they and smiled;
    They bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:
    The leap was quick, return was quick, they has regained theys place,
    Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the theys face.
    “By God!” said they, “rightly done!” and they rose from where they sat:
    “No love,” quoth they, “but vanity, sets love a task like that.”

    All fixed.

  2. Guitardave

    “Anything i look at that does not reflect MY values is most certainly wrong…and MUST be addressed.”
    Sig fucking heil, Mr Far head.

  3. paleo

    “one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs”

    He should speak for himself. I, for one, do everything I can to avoid thinking about – much less obsessing – about what is between the legs of people that I come across.

    And do female parts actually “dangle”? Isn’t he engaging in a wee bit of misogyny by using that phrase, judged against the Woke Thesaurus?

    1. SHG Post author

      The dangly thingy is another mechanism to trivialize the issue, as if it’s got anything to do with genitalia per se. Everyone knows it’s all about whether one prefers pink to blue.

  4. Kirk A Taylor

    Or, for clarity’s sake, we could stop using pronouns at all and just use names…that never gets annoying to read…

    “Allen, this, Allen that, Allen here and Allen there…”

      1. Kirk A Taylor

        Apparently he’s one of the gophers friends in a british animal voiceover video…if you see it you’ll understand the desire to use Allen…or maybe it was Steve…

  5. Cinnamongirl

    My 79 year old mother called after returning from a doctor’s appointment and told me there was a question on a medical form that asked her what gender pronoun she preferred to be called. “What does this mean”, she asked. “I never heard of such a thing”. I responded, “Mom, I don’t even know where to begin, just circle she/her next time and don’t give this another thought”.

    1. SHG Post author

      Whenever I discuss such matters with my wife, she puts here fingers in her ears and starts screaming “lalalalala.”

  6. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    I wrote a long comment and then hit “delete” as I could make my point more directly. Here is my warning to lawyers who practice before me: If you ever use “they” as a pronoun for one person in your legal writing or in court I will figuratively smite* you.**

    As has been said, “Legal writing is to writing what military music is to music.” In my little corner of the world, I am the bandleader.

    All the best.

    RGK

    * I used “smite” ’cause I hope it is scary in an old testament sort a way.
    **The exception, of course, would be if the pronoun “they” formed the essence of the legal dispute.

    1. SHG Post author

      A few days ago, Iowa prawf Andy Grewel pointed out on the twitters the use of the singular neutral “they” in a circuit opinion. I don’t have the link, but Andy was miffed, to say the least, about the usage. He was, naturally, taken to task by more woke lawyers who saw it as huge improvement in circuit opinions.

      1. Richard Kopf

        SHG,

        It is at times like this that I so wish William F. Buckley Jr. was alive.

        All the best.

        RGK

    2. Patrick Maupin

      Not to be pedantic, Judge, but there might be an additional lurking exception, unless you prefer: “Someone was over by the bed, but in the dim light, I couldn’t see him/her clearly, and couldn’t see if s/he had a weapon.”

      1. Neil Faiman

        The appeal to historical usage of singular “they” seems disingenuous, because the historical uses all seem to be aimed at Patrick’s exception: when referring to a person of unknown or unspecified gender, one is caught between the Scylla of the fictitiously gender-neutral “he” and the Charybdis of the fictitiously singular “they” (and the hideous “s/he”). I doubt that any 18th-century English speaker would have said that “Mary cried out because they stubbed their toe.”

    3. Keith

      My first day at work for the firm, the partner told me that the only acceptable way to start a letter was: Dear Sir / Madam.

      Dear Sir / Madam Kopf,
      What pronouns do you prefer?
      All the best,
      K

  7. Patrick Maupin

    I agree with the sentiment “Let’s all use ‘it’.”

    Example: Forgive Farhood. It knows not what it does.

  8. neoteny

    The Hungarian language has no gender in it, yet Hungarians can be sexist with the best of ’em. The entire controversy is manufactured out of whole cloth.

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