Monday, March 26, 2007

Language Update: He, She, They

The box office of the Broadway musical, "Grey Gardens," sat me in a pitilessly horrid seat the other day.

So I asked the usher what I could do. He said to see the house manager, and I asked, "And what will they say?"

I said "they" in order to cover the possibility that the manager might be a woman, which, in fact, it turned out to be.

I didn't want to say "And what will he say?" because all house managers are not men, and we all know deep down that "he" really does not cover both men and women. The word "he" brings a man to mind. I sure wasn't going to say, "And what will he or she say?" And I presume no one would expect me to spin out, "And what answer shall I expect?"

Yet, even as a linguist, it is hard to convince someone that I did not commit a "grammatical error." "They" is plural, you say, but allowed authors like Chaucer and William Thackeray were using "they" in the singular, centuries ago. I was also using "they" in the singular sense at the theater, but more so because I thought I was being culturally sensitive toward women.

Read the rest of John McWhorter’s article here.


Rowan Manahan said...

This has become a real nuisance, especially for old-school grammar freaks like me.

Dick Bolles points to Casey Miller and Kate Swift, who argue that it is time to bring back the earlier usage of 'they,' 'them' and 'their' and he heartily concurs - their book is The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing.

I used to use the slightly cumbersome (s)he, but switched to an alternating usage of 'he' and 'she' on the advice of my publisher. That's fine for the chapters of a book, but it still feels a bit 'off' when I'm posting ...

Michael Wade said...

I know what you mean, Rowan. "They, them, and their" are much less cumbersome. It also helps if people are less inclined to find offense where none is intended.