After a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat, we sat at the table talking about one of our guest’s new job in academia. Eventually, we got to the problem of learning students’ personal pronouns, which the university required. It was, he explained, not that big a deal, as only one or two use a pronoun out of the ordinary, and when he messed up, there was no offense taken. It wasn’t a big deal, he told me.
Then I asked him about the singular “they.” He went through the usual litany of excuses, that it was always there, had deep linguistic roots, was better than the alternative of “he/she” when gender was unknown, and was only an issue because old school English teachers, all named Miss Grundy, insisted that the proper English convention was “they” was plural. Real people, he told me, didn’t talk that way. I, for one, appreciate having a young person explain to me what “real people” do.
We both agreed that as a matter of simple courtesy, it was appropriate to try to accommodate people’s requests for personal pronouns, even if, as I saw it, such requests were a bit on the manipulative side and more an affectation than substantive. We commonly did it with names, whether a person whose formal name was Susan preferred to be called Sue or Susie, or the more official Susan.
But as a junior academic, he would be expected to write. How would he handle the writing piece? It presented a question he apparently hadn’t considered before, as the issue was only connected to individual requests and not as a general practice. After a brief pause, he said that he would use the singular “they” rather than adhere to the convention of using the masculine “he” when the gender was unknown. He would not, he authoritatively stated, be a slave to Strunk & White.
“And how,” I inquired, “does that aid in clarity?”
Without hesitation, he started to explain to me about how everything was contextual, and I cut him short.
“How,” I repeated, “does that aid in clarity?”
We repeated this a few times, until he finally got exasperated with me and explained that he would manage. And I had no doubt that he would, no matter how many extra words, footnotes, explanations and strained conjugations were necessary. After all, would the sentence be “they are calculating the co-efficient” or “they is”? If the “they” is singular, then wouldn’t “is” be the verb to use? And yet, “they is” doesn’t flow naturally.
I remember my father telling the old saw about “call me anything but late for dinner.” This wasn’t far from “sticks and stones,” although the former offered no hint of malevolent intent while the latter message was to ignore name-calling as being of no serious consequence. This didn’t come to mind because we were tougher in the old days, but because people have long been sensitive about what they were called, whether by mistake or intention. These aphorisms came about in response to sensitivity.
If there has always been some degree of sensitivity to how we’re addressed, is it wrong today to try to do something about it rather than slough it off, as was the solution back when? This certainly doesn’t sound like a bad thing, to face rather than dismiss things that bother other people. Whether they really bother a person may be a contested issue, but if someone says they do, there isn’t any real way to test or challenge it. There is no argument that someone’s claimed feelings aren’t legitimate; if they say they feel hurt, we are constrained to accept it as true, even if we believe it’s silly, performative or just too sensitive to be taken seriously.
But what about clarity?
Words are used to communicate. Sure, we communicate with ourselves and our friends, and use language that is understood to have meanings that outsiders wouldn’t be aware of, but communication is basically us speaking to others, and we can no more go through life communicating by saying, “bring me the thing.” “What thing?” “You know, the thing.” Maybe “the thing” will be understood. Maybe not. But if you actually want someone to bring you the thing, you would do well to use a different word than “thing.”
All of this came back to me when I saw a twit applying the singular “they” in legal writing.
Yes, and it’s personal for me because I’m married to a non-binary person https://t.co/ctuHI5F9ws
— Steve Klepper (@MDAppeal) December 4, 2020
Granted, the influence of an issue being personal changes the relative weight of the values, so it’s entirely understandable why someone married to a non-binary person would be particularly sensitive to the use of the singular “they” as a pronoun. But the related post makes the critical point.
If a brief or opinion uses the term “he or she” as an inclusive term for all persons bound by the law, the writer is not being inclusive or accurate. The writer is unwittingly excluding people, erasing the identities of people I love.
You may agree with this or not, and I find the “erasure” rhetoric silly and grossly overwrought. No person is “erased” by a word. They obviously exist and their existence doesn’t depend on what word convention dictates. But Klepper’s point is that this is his perspective, and it provides context to his point that follows.
So why do I still pluralize hypothetical persons in my legal writing, instead of doing my part to make non-binary people visible? I have a duty of loyalty to my clients. My job is to advocate for them before appellate judges. Appellate judges tend to have unusually strong feelings on grammar. If you attend a “tips from appellate judges” program, you’re likely to hear about a few of their grammatical pet peeves. I know the singular “they” won’t lose a case I’d otherwise win. But still I fear doing anything that distracts from making my client’s case.
For better or worse, language is changing, even if the change is less than organic in origin. I’ve harped on the ever-growing list of words that have become untethered from meaningful definitions, words that are now forbidden for reasons that elude reason, and other affectations like the use of the singular “they” which serves to undermine rather than enhance clarity.
Will there come a time when this is all taken for granted, that it will not be distracting to write the singular “they”? As Klepper notes, pushing the point now at the expense of a client contravenes a lawyer’s duty, as our personal choice of dealing with pronouns is secondary to winning the client’s case. Or should dedication to political correctness justify sacrificing clarity at the risk of our client’s cause? Or was grandpa right when he said, “call me anything but late for dinner”?