“They” Is Or “They” Ain’t

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.

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”?

29 thoughts on ““They” Is Or “They” Ain’t

  1. Henry Drummond

    Language is a poor enough means of communication. We’ve got to use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands

      1. Hunting Guy

        Personal rant about the changes in language.

        Decimated and destroyed do not mean the same thing, no matter what journalists say.

        As you point out, clarity is important.

        1. Rengit

          Another imposing “D” word I noticed is changing: the adjective “dominant” has been steadily replaced with “dominate”, pronounced not like the verb but like “dominant” minus the n. I attribute this change to autocomplete features on word processors and phones.

          So now not only is “dominate” a verb and a noun, the latter the academic term for the late Roman Empire, it’s also an adjective; seems an appropriate result, to conquer the three main parts of speech, given what the root of the word means.

  2. Stephen Berman

    That was a very nice discussion and it prompts me to ask you if you have any specific recommendations about what people should do? Does it depend upon one’s profession? Has anyone written a good list of recommendations? Or, perhaps a guide book is necessary. I’m a medical school professor and my school has never given me guidelines, though I imagine that is coming. I find myself using “they”, just hoping that this means I will be able to retire before I actually have to engage this issue more seriously. Personally, I do not see anything wrong with the traditional (at least traditional with me) idea that “he” can represent either sex in appropriate situations, situations that seem easy to identify. So, it would be simplest to add the idea that in addition to either gender, “he” can also represent “no gender”, “binary gender”, “tertiary gender”, “any number of genders”, “variable gender(s)” or anything else regarding gender. But, then I think, if I would be happy to retain “he”, then what’s the difference if I switch to “they?” It is just switching one word for another. Very simple.
    Also, whenever I read a discussion of this subject I cannot help remembering an old joke about a history professor. He (and I heard the joke with “he”) walked into the class room and wrote with chalk on the old-fashioned blackboard, “History-The Study of Man.” Then, just before he began speaking, he paused, seemingly thinking about something, and then turned back to what he had just written. He then made a small clarification to his title so that it then read, “History-The Study of Man (Embracing Woman).” That used to be a good joke.

    1. SHG Post author

      I can tell you what I think would be the best solution, which is that we distinguish clarity in communication from the compulsion to seek out reasons to be offended whenever possible, but I suspect that my old man view will carry little weight. There are far too many serious problems in life to either spend our time looking for reasons to be angry with other people or make life more difficult than it has to be.

      I would expect the need for clarity to be even greater for physicians than lawyers. As a patient, I would certainly want my doc’s communications to be as clear and certain as possible.

          1. Hunting Guy

            Depends if your chromosomes are XX or XY.

            It “does” make a difference and could literally be a life or death decision.

            Is zir willing to die on that hill?

  3. Jeffrey M Gamso

    Kahlil Gibran (I was 15 once) wrote “We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.” It always (even when I was 15) seemed a stupid idea, since then we could never say anything. Of course, once George Carlin told us what those words were . . . .

    Clarity, always clarity. And the needs of the client. (Though, I have to add, I don’t know anyone who sometimes doesn’t use the singular “they” in speech.)

  4. Steve King


    My apologies for being incomprehensible in my last post here.

    Please allow me to make the following point: My wife has taught Journalism/English at university level for thirty plus years. She has observed a decline in writing, communication, and logic skills for every one of those years. The last ten years seem to have been the worst, with the decline accelerating. Her university has to offer more and more remedial classes in writing and composition in order to get students up to speed for first year classes.

    The idea that good writing takes practice is appears to be incomprehensible to most of them. If they say the want to be writers, ask them how many pages a day they write? Ninety percent of the time the answer is a blank stare.

    As for logic skills, a non-trivial number cannot comprehend A=B, B=C, therefore A=C.

    Some of them want to and will become lawyers.

    You and the Judge have my sympathy.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not only have we also seen that happening, but with a concomitant arrogance that they’re brilliant and have nothing to learn.

      1. Jeffrey M Gamso

        Not a new problem, certainly. It’s been decades since I taught Freshman Comp, but even then . . . .

        And so it came to pass, that when I was in law school (and this is going back well over thirty years), the Dean once asked me if I was interested in teaching a class in remedial writing to incoming students the summer before they actually began taking law classes. Nothing ever came of the idea; as was typical of that dean when he had an idea, there was no follow up.

        1. Steve King

          My wife’s university has a law school and one of her fellow professors teaches remedial writing (Writing for Lawyers) there. I believe it is compulsory, at least for some students.

          On my wife’s side not only are there more remedial classes being offered, but they have had to get deeper into the subject. It is not merely a review.

  5. Curtis

    If we are going to have deal with this, it should be simple and comprehensible. The woke should come up with a single set of singular gender neutral words to replace he, him and his. I really don’t care what the words are (ze, zim, zis or whatever) but make it easy for us and we will do our best to comply. It will take us a while to learn the words just like it was a while before Ms became automatic.

      1. Curtis

        If everyone has their own pronoun, then it’s a nickname not a pronoun.

        I will be try to be polite but I do not intend to expend a lot of energy doing it. I will quit using pronouns (“I went to Jordan’s house to watch Jordan’s dog while Jordan was on vacation with Jordan’s family”) rather than try to remembering dozens of confusing pronoun.

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