Folks, I’m more tolerant than most people I know. I no longer run outside and bark at motorcycles when they roar through my quiet neighborhood, rearranging the dishes in my china cabinet. I’ve given up asking restaurant managers to please, for God’s sake, turn down the volume on those piped-in, worn-out Eagles’ songs while I’m trying to have a quiet conversation with my beloved. When a kid repeatedly kicks the back of my seat on a four-hour, crowded plane ride, I refrain from turning around and giving the brat and his indulgent parent the evil eye. (However, I remain a fierce advocate for “adult-only” flights.)
I attribute my restraint to unequal parts maturity and anti-anxiety, serotonin-building pharmaceuticals. Of course, as a child of the early 1970s, I have no trouble artificially adjusting my reality.
But enough about me. Let’s you, me, us, and just about anybody who cares about grammar talk about the misuse of the pronoun “they.”
Here’s where I draw my line in the sand. While serving my 12-year sentence in the crumbling, lead-painted hovels of the Chicago Public School System, I learned all about pronouns. He, she, her, him, and I were singular, applying only to one person easily identified as male or female. They, them, we, and us were plural, applying to a mix of genders, of which last I checked, there remain only two.
Really these were simple concepts, simpler than, say, memorizing the periodic table or dozens of phylums or how to shimmy up a rope in gym class while wearing shorts.
But, alas, in today’s confusing and at times, let’s admit it, fashionable trend du jour of declaring nonbinary gender fluidity, the word “they,” a third-person generic pronoun, is now being used instead of a gender-specific pronoun, or in place of, wait for it, the name one is given on one’s birth certificate. In 2019, the august reference bible Merriam-Webster made the singular gender-neutral use of “they” the Word of the Year. Wonder what word was chosen the year before? “Covfefe?”
It seems as if everyone is jumping aboard this dismal train, destination horrible word usage. For example, the American Psychological Association has endorsed the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in scholarly writing, opening the door for its dozens of writers and readers to be subject to this misappropriation of the English language.
According to the APA’s style guide, “APA advocates for the singular ‘they’ because it is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.”
I’m all for people coming out as nonbinary. I think it’s refreshing to pull down the traditional barriers of what it means to be male and female. The more inclusive our society can be, the better it is for all, binary or not, and for everyone in between. One size has never fit all.
But must we do so while sacrificing the very foundation of our language? Words matter. This grammatical upheaval cancels everything my seventh grade English teacher in Chicago’s Clinton Elementary School pounded into my distracted young brain. (I’m sorry, Mrs. Lang. It’s not you, it’s them. You did your best, and, by the way, I think I can still diagram sentences.)
So, you might ask, what verb tense should I employ with “they?” Let us again turn to the APA’s style guide for clarification. “When ‘they’ is the subject of a sentence, ‘they’ takes a plural verb regardless of whether ‘they’ is meant to be singular or plural.”
Oh my. Contradiction alert? Let us suppose that the one-who-shall-be-called “they” is an author. They wrote a book, but there is no co-author. So grammatically, if we are referring to a lone writer, how can the verb be plural? Then again, “they writes a book” has all the grace of a 4-year-old with sticky fingers massaging a balloon.
Here are some ideas to get the Earth rotating back on its axis. Let’s substitute “it” for “they.” Would that not be a more appropriate pronoun in describing someone that is non-gender specific? “It ran into a cab in Brooklyn because it was texting its dog sitter who also goes by it. It (the texter, not the dog sitter) is now in surgery, and its friends are hoping it gets better soon. ‘It is what it is,’ said its dad.”
Or, how about using ‘whatever,” as in, “whatever’s research shows that drinking a triple espresso may lead to a sudden onset of atrial fibrillation. Baristas responded dismissively by shrugging and saying, whatever, whatever.”
Finally, here’s a perfectly novel solution to all this pronoun confusion. How about simply using one’s name? Your family will thank you. In fact, they will love you for it.
• Stephen J. Lyons is the author of five books of essays and journalism, including “Going Driftless” and “West of East.”