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.

3 comments:

Jeff Fecke said...

I have come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that singular "they" is the right solution to this, simply because people who didn't get grammar drilled into them already use it. That makes it a much easier fix than "zie," which nobody outside of the hardest of hardcore activists will ever use, simply because it sounds weird.

Indeed, I suspect that if not for the strong patriarchal bent to the 18th century, "they" would have been the choice of grammarians to replace he/she, rather than a generic "he." They're just as wrong in their own unique way, but "he" is exclusive in a way that "they" cannot be.

Emily said...

Kudos to you. I wholeheartedly agree.

Language Log (a superb linguistics blog) also points out a divine mandate for singular "they". (See also the somewhat more serious follow-up.)

Anonymous said...

I never realized why Americans don't like the use of 'they' as a singular, neutral pronoun. You get taught that it's incorrect? It has no such stigma here (in Ireland), and all educated and uneducated English speakers alike use the word. We never have any problems, it never causes any ambiguity, it works just fine and, as you've pointed out, it has been in use for centuries and put to eloquent use by some the best writers ever to put pen to page.