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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Quarrelling With Pronouns

Around the time the Great Flood started to recede I was taught to write, “Everyone must remove his shoes.” Funny how boys aren’t bothered by such preferential usage of male gender pronouns.

Back then feminism was a feature of the French Revolution and the current usage of politically correct had yet to surface. Mostly the phrase designated leftist ideological orthodoxy: “It is not politically correct to question Castro’s crackdown on free speech.”

I was well along in my newspaper career when feminists began to point out that our pronoun canon excluded about half of humanity. Almost overnight it became “Everyone must remove his or her shoes.” I did not comply — not for misogynistic reasons, but as a matter of style. There is nothing elegant in his or her and she or he. I could always find an escape hatch, such as “Guests must remove their shoes.” Paramount for me was number harmony along with style.

As 2016 began, the American Dialect Society declared the singular they Word of the Year. So, officially, it now can be “Everyone must remove their shoes.”

But if you’re thinking that this is political correctness negotiating a style obstacle, you’re wrong; it’s simply a politically correct recognition of the latest thinking on sexual identity — or, as Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh observed, singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

While sensitivity to sexual identity in some instances may be appropriate, it need not encompass everyone; some of us are not reluctant to be categorized. And demolishing the grammatical edifice of number harmony to achieve this seems a bridge too far. As Sam Goldwyn would say, include me out — because, along with reading and ’riting I was also taught ’rithmetic and two plus two will never be five, political correctness notwithstanding.

I am buoyed by the reaction of Mary Norris, the Comma Queen at the New Yorker. In her March 4 (U.S. National Grammar Day) column she refers to last year’s flirtation by the American Copy Editors Society with the singular their: “Many ACES stalwarts — copy editors, journalists, grammarians, lexicographers, and linguists — stand ready to embrace the singular ‘their.’ But not us. We avoid it whenever we can.”


Previous «Wasted Words» post: The Origins of Texting.

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8 Comments on “Wasted Words: Quarrelling With Pronouns”

  • So, is there a solution to this? Some people take exception to the use of ‘he’ as a term that some insist represents everyone (in the singular, that is).
    What is an editor to do?

  • Anita Jenkins


    This is the first time I have disagreed with you, Wilf. Not a bridge too far. I have used the singular «they» at the request of clients for at least a decade, maybe two. It was hard to accept at first, but since I had been hearing it in speech, including news broadcasts, for a long time, It was not too hard to adjust.

  • Virginia Durksen


    Bonus question: Given your love of number equality, Wilf, where do you stand on a comma queen’s use of the royal (or editorial) «we»?

  • Colin Smith


    I’m with you, Wilf. I think the singular they/their stinks, and I’ll always look for away to work around it. Regarding the royal/editorial we, you’re teasing, Virginia. As you are no doubt aware, the monarch and the editor use «we» not personally, but as the embodiment of a single entity, the realm or the newspaper.

    • Virginia Durksen


      That’s my point exactly, Colin. The plural «we» stands for a singular entity. That’s another way of saying the numbers don’t add up in plural uses of the royal «we» any more than in singular uses of «they.» So, perhaps having numbers that add up isn’t the only function of pronouns.

      • Colin Smith


        Well, now I feel silly. As I was out and about, Virginia, I realized that the word I’d wanted was not «single,» which indeed supports your point and cuts across mine, but «corporate.»

  • Shaun Oakey


    «As 2016 began, the American Dialect Society declared the singular ‘they’ Word of the Year. So, officially, it now can be ‘Everyone must remove their shoes.’”

    In fact, no. As Mary Norris clarified a week later (, «This was an endorsement not of the singular ‘their’ in such constructions as ‘Everyone in the vicinity held their breath’ but of ‘they’ as an alternative to ‘he’ or ‘she’ in the case of a person who rejects the traditional masculine/feminine paradigm.» In that sense, the singular ‘they’ is more aligned with Sweden’s new (and popular) pronoun, ‘hen,’ which The Guardian describes as being «used to refer to a person without revealing their gender — either because it is unknown, because the person is transgender, or the speaker or writer deems the gender to be superfluous information.»

    I like the crossover here. A singular ‘they’ is useful not just in the context of gender identity but also when the gender is «superfluous information.» That frequently applies in sentences where we were once taught to use «he or she» — as in the examples in ECE 2.3.2(b). «He or she» frequently strikes me as both inelegant and unnecessarily careful, akin to «reply within two (2) weeks.»

    Norris concedes this is all in flux. It will be interesting to see where things fall. But since the singular ‘they’ has a roughly 400-year history in English literature, and its use has been argued about for the past century at least, we might have a long wait.

    • Paul Buckingham


      Thanks for the clarification, Shaun.

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