THE SINGULAR THEY HURTS MY BRAIN BUT I’LL TRY TO GET OVER IT

I’m honestly really not some kind of Grammar Nazi or elitist, but I’m an editor, and I was trained by other editors, and I have some clients who have strict style rules and anyway as a professional I like to be able to back up what I do with some kind of authority, some source to explain any edit I’ve made.

I think some people think I’m nuts when I change dove to dived, for instance, but the latter is the past tense of the verb “to dive” and the former is a sort of pigeon. But almost everyone always says “I dove headfirst,” so I leave it in dialog and change it everywhere else because some of these rules keep me from sliding off the face of the Earth into the Howling Oblivion.

But that’s just me.

Anyway, in the past few years at least there’s been a lot of talk about the “formal” adoption of they/them as singular pronouns. In fact:

they: gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a non-binary identifier (214)

. . . became the 2015 Word of the Year from the American Dialectic Society—a good enough authority for me to adopt this?

Let’s start with setting aside what I can feel coming: Accusations of gender bias, entitlement, and all the other things that I know I have to spend my life apologizing for because of . . . you tell me. I’ll apologize for it. But me being flippant aside, I actually get it. I’m happy living in a world that includes people rather than excludes them, and I absolutely understand that the pronoun issue has different meanings for different people.

Washington Post columnist Steven Petrow wrote in “Gender-neutral pronouns: When ‘they’ doesn’t identify as either male or female”:

Jacob (whom I’ve known for years) prefers the pronouns “they” and “them,” and so here’s how I would write about Jacob: They have a gender identity that encompasses both male and female, and their attire ranges from pencil skirts, high heels and lipstick to blazers, bow ties and facial hair on any given day.

This past week I attended a presentation at Duke University’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, whose name was the LGBT Center but was changed to reflect a more fluid understanding of gender. At the outset, the speaker asked the audience to introduce ourselves and declare our preferred gender pronouns. Most of us stated an adherence to the traditional—“he/him/his” and “she/her/hers”—but several individuals chose gender-neutral pronouns, “they/them/their.” One person preferred to use “ze” (“ze smiled”) and “hir” (“I work with hir”).

Okay. Fine.

Look, after all, I resisted the strong temptation to add serial commas to that quote, written AP Stylebook-wise by a newspaperperson. If someone asks me to refer to him/her/them/ze/hir by a particular pronoun, I’m happy to do that. You tell me. I’m on board. It will feel weird to me, I’ll honestly feel as though I’m babbling a little, but so what? In my ordinary speech I tend to babble anyway. I use all sorts of colloquialisms, heapin’ helpin’s of profanity, sentence fragments, what could be described as sound effects . . . Trust me, if we were watching a football game together you’d never peg me as some kind of stuffy English professor. And I’m not.

But at least in some forms of writing I need to be understood more clearly, and as an editor, without rules, where the fuck are we?

So what about this rule?

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, my own primary source and the primary source of all of my clients who actually specify a primary source, I’m already at least a little behind the curve on this, but they still won’t dive fully into the singular they pool:

The singular “they.” A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing. Avoiding the plural form by alternating masculine and feminine pronouns is awkward and only emphasizes the inherent problem of not having a generic third-person pronoun.

And this is really the source of the issue. The only non-gender specific singular pronoun is it, and that’s always seen as disrespectful, carrying the message that this person is seen as an object. And anyway, from what I understand, the “ungrammatical they” has been in common use since as early as the 14th century and seems to have been common practice back in the 16th century.

But still, the plural pronouns they/them/their just sound wrong in the singular—to me, at least, just as wrong as it.

Let’s look at the options here for a minute:

If we know the gender of the person we’re referring to, the singular is fine because we’re talking about one person of that gender:

That Martian can get violent if he thinks you’re stealing water.

When this dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get her to stop.

The old style, admittedly sexist, is to defer to the male pronoun when we don’t know the gender of the person we’re referring to or if we’re referring to anyone of either gender:

A Martian can get violent if he thinks you’re stealing water.

When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get him to stop.

That was what I was taught, but the first attempt to modify this came into regular use when I was a kid, very likely fought against by that generation’s Grammar Police: he or she or some variation like s/he:

A Martian can get violent if s/he thinks you’re stealing water.

When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get him or her to stop.

Can we just not add a slash to a word, ever? And the second example is clunky.

So what if we do the slightly harder but rather more clear thing and write around it? If you want the sentence to refer to either gender, just make the noun plural:

Martians can get violent if they think you’re stealing water.

When dwarves start drinking, it’s hard to get them to stop.

Here they/them are plural pronouns because they and them are plural pronouns—even if they didn’t used to be eight hundred years ago or so. These sentences make just as much sense—more sense, actually—than the old style:

A Martian can get violent if he thinks you’re stealing water.

When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get him to stop.

. . . since it would actually be reasonable to read those sentences as referring only to male Martians and dwarves. And after all, we know that female Martians are way more violent, in general, than male Martians and no one wants to try to get between a female dwarf and her tankard of hearty ale.

Now, that having been said, I fully realize that language is a living thing, and me sitting here trying to fight against a decision that’s clearly been made just makes me one of those old guys everyone hates.

Me and T.S. Eliot, when in a 1959 Paris Review interview was asked if he thought that “one of the changes of the last fifty years, and perhaps even more of the last five years, the growing dominance of commercial speech through the means of communication . . . make the problem of the poet and his relationship to common speech more difficult?” said:

I do think that where you have these modern means of communication and means of imposing the speech and idioms of a small number on the mass of people at large, it does complicate the problem very much. I don’t know to what extent that goes for film speech, but obviously radio speech has done much more.

To which the interviewer asked “I wonder if there’s a possibility that what you mean by common speech will disappear.”

Eliot replied, “That is a very gloomy prospect. But very likely indeed.”

Gloomy for some of us, maybe, but language is a living thing, so if everybody else is okay with:

A Martian can get violent if they think you’re stealing water.

When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get them to stop.

. . . who am I to argue?

But man, that will just always look wrong to me. Can this be made “acceptable” after I die? I identify as an old fat guy. It won’t be too much longer, I’m sure.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to THE SINGULAR THEY HURTS MY BRAIN BUT I’LL TRY TO GET OVER IT

  1. mjtedin says:

    Another option is One. It sounds “rather proper”, but is common in other languages.

    A Martian can get violent if one thinks you’re stealing water.
    When a dwarf starts drinking, it’s hard to get one to stop.

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