Saturday, December 26, 2009

Shakespeare And The Singular 'They'

It's hard to know how to properly do gender-neutral singular pronouns. When you don't know the gender of the one person you're referring to, are you supposed to use the unpleasantly gender-asymmetric 'he', the similarly asymmetric 'she', the accurate but clunky 'he or she', the unpronounceable 's/he', the usually plural 'they', or the freakishly neologistic 'zie'? Sometimes you can reorganize the sentence to avoid these problems, but other times it's more trouble than it's worth.

It was hard for me to overcome elementary-school inhibitions and go with 'they', but Shakespeare really helped. Here's the Bard using singular 'they' when the gender of the person being referred to is unknown:
FRIAR LAURENCE
Arise; one knocks; good Romeo, hide thyself.

ROMEO
Not I; unless the breath of heartsick groans,
Mist-like, infold me from the search of eyes.

Knocking

FRIAR LAURENCE
Hark, how they knock! Who's there?
Turns out that singular 'they' was used a lot in the old days before 18th century grammarians came along and cost us a useful pronoun. Of course, singular 'they' isn't perfect, as in some cases context will leave it ambiguous with the plural 'they.' But 'he' and 'she' have even worse ambiguities, some of the other options are hard to say, and 'zie' is just too weird.
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