In yet another indicator that the West is collapsing, Webster’s Dictionary has apparently named they, used to designate a particular, non-gendered person, the word of 2019. This seems to call for a quick refresher on basic grammar:
There are two kinds of pronouns, those that stand for one person (the singular) and those that stand for more than one person (plural). It can be a little more complex than this but this general rule is true.
Singular Personal Pronouns
- First person singular: I. “I am going to the store.”
- Second person singular: You. “You are going to the store with me.”
- Third person singular: He/She/It. “He is going to the store after me.” “She is going to the store too.” “It never fails. When I go to the store the parking lot is crowded.”
Plural Personal Pronouns
- First person plural: We. “We went to the store.”
- Second person plural: You. “You [all] went to the store with him.”
- Third person plural: They. “They were late and missed the trip to the store.”
They is used to stand for a plural subject. Multiple people are implied in they. I, you, he, she, and it are all singular. One person at a time is implied. Obviously there is an ambiguity with you since it can be singular or plural. We infer which is meant from the context. We is unambiguously plural.
Until very recently, they stood for a plural subject. How recently? The standard reference work on the English language, perhaps the greatest reference work of all time, The Oxford English Dictionary, reports the first usage of they to refer to a non-gendered singular subject dates to the first Obama administration (2009).
The first definition given in the OED for they reads: “ The subjective case of the third person plural pronoun; the plural of he, she, or it.” It has been used that way since c. 1175, in Middle English (post-1066), the first use recorded in the OED. The entry records the sentence: “ They goo aboute to fykkle [flatter] with Iryshe men“ in the State Papers of Henry VIII from 1537.
I am aware of the claim that the non-gendered use of they for a singular subject occurred in the 16th century. I doubt this claim. They has long been used for collective singular subjects, i.e., a group treated as a unit. This usage dates to the late 14th century. In 1548 century one finds this: “ Every one visered himselfe, so that they were vnknowen.” In this case they refers not to an ungendered singular person but to a collective singular.
The OED does give a usage that is similar but not identical to the usage that appeared in 2009:
With an antecedent referring to an individual generically or indefinitely (e.g. someone, a person, the student), used esp. so as to make a general reference to such an individual without specifying gender. Cf. he pron. 2b.
In the 21st century, other th– pronouns (and the possessive adjective their) are sometimes used to refer to a named individual, so as to avoid revealing or making an assumption about that person’s gender; cf. sense A. 2c, and quots. 2008 at their adj. 2b, 2009 at them pron. 4b, 2009 at themself pron. 2b.
First, some of the instances quoted seem to be closer to the collective singular than to a non-gendered individual. E.g., from 1877, “I am never angry with anybody unless they deserve it.” This is a class of people, not a particular individual. Other uses given under this heading are attempts to avoid using he generically. Second, there is a difference between not specifying the grammatical gender of the subject (or object) because it is immaterial and requiring the speaker or writer to apply the plural pronoun when there is plainly a single individual before him (this is the generic use of the masculine pronoun, by the way).
The three instances, given in the OED, that unambiguously use they to refer to non-gendered individuals come from 2009, 2013, and 2019. It should surprise no one that the first use occurred on Twitter, that engine of social and linguistic destruction.
Some of this comes from the application of grammatical categories to human sexuality. With the exception of an tiny number of persons, humans belong to one of two biological sexes. Humans do not have a gender biologically speaking. Gender is a grammatical category which can be relatively arbitrary (e.g., applying feminine pronouns to ships) but is not always so. We recognize the male sex with masculine pronouns and the female sex with feminine pronouns. There are no neuter persons—we have a singular non-gendered pronoun: it. Why they instead of it?
The late-modern, non-gendered use of they in place of the singular pronoun is political, ungrammatical, unclear, and unnecessary. “They is coming for dinner” is nonsense. Consider:
Joe: They are coming over.
Mary: Who are they?
Mary: Who else is coming?
Joe: Just Patricia.
This is a recipe for endless confusion. Grammatically, in this case, the clearest pronoun is she. To use they is obnoxious.
Pronouns are not a matter of mere preference. They are not arbitrary. There is a genuine relation between the sign, he and the thing signified, Joe. In that sense, we do not choose pronouns. We are born with them. They are related to the nature of things, to the way things are in nature.
The function of a personal pronoun is to relieve the writer or speaker from having to repeat the proper name of the subject or object. “Joe went to the store. Then Joe went to the dentist. After that Joe went to the gym.” This is ungainly but the only alternative to abusing they is to resort to the proper name. This is what will happen if the revolutionaries are allowed to force us all to speak or write nonsense.
The attempt to revolutionize the language by force (e.g., government agencies punishing people for refusing to use preferred pronouns, even when the pronouns make no sense) demonstrates how weak is the case for their use. The revolutionaries have not made the case for their use or for why we should abandon near a millennium of usage. They could not make that case so they resorted to the power of the unelected little soviets (the councils that terrorized Russians and countless others under Communism) in blue cities and on university campuses to achieve the outcome.
The reader might be tempted to throw up his hands but this argument is a proxy for the argument about the existence of givenness. To the degree that is true, this debate is not just about grammar but about nature.