They and Their Again

Yesterday’s post, chastising a reader for using the plural word “their” to mean a singular “he/she,” elicited strong reaction, not least from the malefactor himself.

“Dan, Dan, Dan,” he wrote wearily. “‘Their’ is now the gender-neutral singular. Language evolves. It’s a beautiful, living means of efficient communication. Better yet, it’s a beautiful, living means of focusing thought. To fight that fight is to fail to realize the evolution of language – to try to trap language in a permanent past. “Their” is much easier to say, and hence more efficient, and hence preferable.”

Horsefeathers. Certainly our increasing sensitivity to the sexually complicated creates a need for a gender-neutral personal pronoun on which we can all agree. But it should not inject confusion into writing. Imagine encountering this sentence in an article or short story: “Carol returned to their apartment, threw their raincoat on the couch and cracked open a beer. They walked to the window and stared at the rain.”

How many people are you picturing? Just one? More? How many? I suppose I could write, “Carol, who prefers to be known by the personal pronoun ‘they,’ returned to their apartment, threw their raincoat on the couch and cracked open a beer. They walked to the window and stared at the rain.” Some readers would certainly say, “Wait? What?” and require a fuller explanation which wouldn’t fit well here. This is a “beautiful, living means of efficient communication?” A way of “focusing thought?”

(Pry open lion’s mouth; insert head.)

It has been explained to me at length that some people reject binary sexuality for themselves, prefer the personal pronoun, “they,” and must be respected. Agreed. But it might have been Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “Your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” To those who prefer to go by “they” instead of “he” or “she,” I might suggest that your liberty to go by personal pronoun of choice ends where my fingertips begin. Much as I respect your choice and would be careful to use it in conversation when we’re together, I’d have a hard time confusing my readers for your sake.* 

For a while, some people were advocating for “Xe” as a gender-neutral personal pronoun, which was a terrific idea. It would have only one meaning — a single person of whichever or fluid sexuality — without introducing confusion. Let this blog post be the start of a reopened discussion of “Xe” as ungendered singular personal pronoun.” No, I am not a member of the community that would want to apply it personally, so maybe I don’t a right to make this suggestion. I’m just a straight white guy who might have occasion to write about someone of complicated sexuality and want to do so without confusing my readers. Does a way forward exist that satisfies us both? Is Xe it?

And before you go for the torches and pitchforks, let me say that I yield to no man or woman in sensitivity to the sexually complex. One of the main characters in my third book started life as John Guidos, is today JoAnn Guidos, and and I am pleased and proud that she loved my portrayal of her. 

Look what these young demonstrators in Mexico City did at a gay-rights march that Margaret and I attended:

Hijx(Somos tus) means “we are your…” Hijo is Spanish for “son.”**  Hija means “daughter.” By changing the final vowel of both words to X, they were negating gender altogether. (They couldn’t agree how to pronounce it, though.) 

As for my reader above, and his argument that “language evolves,” I’ve pointed out in this space before that that none of us has the authority to nudge English along some imaginary evolutionary curve at will. It’s our job, as writers, to paint pictures with this beautiful language of ours and follow its rules — not because our seventh-grade English teachers want us to, but because doing so makes our writing clearer. 



* On the other hand, hmmmm. Before I hit the “publish,” button, let me think about this. Maybe I should let people tell me how to write about them, which would give me the right to tell them how to write about me. I could say, “Henceforth, please refer to me as  ‘His Royal Highness Dan Baum’ or ‘the Nobel laureate Dan Baum.’ Either would be just as accurate and clarifying as using “they” for a single person.

** The masculine hijo also means “offspring,” regardless of sex, and hijos “children” if at least one boy numbers among those of whom one speaks or writes. Maddening, but I’m not the Spanish police. I carry an English badge.


4 thoughts on “They and Their Again

  1. Hi Dan, The use of “they” (or “xe”) for, as you say, the sexually complicated is a different issue, as is the example you gave of Carol, from the use of they to follow an indefinite subject, as in “If a person doesn’t like grammar, they should shove it.” This latter example is now widely accepted, including by the Associated Press.

    The gender issue is unwieldy and confusing, but not the same. Your Carol example is an over-the-top straw man (or woman or xe), but pinpoints the gender difficulty. I am with you on that, as well on just rewriting most sentences for clarity. In fact, I’m curmudgeonly enough to be with you on all of this but have to accept that I can’t teach it that way anymore. So on the topic of using “they” as a singular pronoun in certain circumstances, you’re tilting at windmills. I think Chicago manual and Oxford accept it now too.

    all warm and best, Mark


  2. Hi Dan,

    I can’t wait to hear more about they and their (I’ve silently cheered this evolution from a convenience standpoint, but from a comprehension perspective, it’s still “wrong”, we need to do better) but the password wordwork99 isn’t working for me. Help me, kind sir.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s