Thursday, January 14, 2016

They is right {a letter to my English teacher}



My dear Mrs. Bouteiller,

I regret to inform you that it has finally happened.

A long time ago, you predicted this day might come. I wonder if anyone else remembers? We were hunched in molded plastic seats, feet propped on the metal baskets of the desks in front of us, chewing our pencils, twirling our hair, staring at the one tiny square of daylight embedded in the greyish-orange cinder block wall, listening to the buzz of the lights and the absurdly loud ticks of the clock, thinking about whatever eighth graders think about when their teachers start soapboxing about grammar.

Well, I remember, anyway.

It is not acceptable, you said. It never will be, no matter how many people use it.  Many people doing a wrong thing many times does not make a wrong thing right, and it never will.

You said that English lacked a neutral way to express ownership. The bag is his, or the bag is hers. If one person owns that bag, it isn't Theirs. It will never be Their bag, unless they live in a commune and hold their property in common. There is no way around this, you said. People might pretend that "they" is singular. They might say it as if it is correct. They might even (God forbid!) write this down someplace as if it is acceptable.

It will never be acceptable. You told us.

I believed you.

You probably deserve credit for my becoming the grammatical conservative I am. I do break rules, sure...I overuse the ellipsis and start sentences with conjunctions sometimes. I've even been known to leave prepositions dangling dangerously. Whenever I do these things, though, I think about you (and about Mrs. Ballard and Ms. Raines). My grammatical choices are rarely oversights- they're more like mortal sins. I know they're wrong, I decide to do them anyway, and I take full responsibility for my actions.

It's been nearly 25 years (really? that long?) since you climbed onto that soapbox, and this week, the American Dialect Society declared the battle is officially over. Persistent Incorrect Usage has won. "They" has evolved. It's no longer enough to say "he or she" or "his or hers" (and certainly not enough to just assume that "his" covers everyone). We can stop struggling with the difficulty of reading "he/she" and "s/he" aloud. The world has changed, and the language is officially adapting.

The odd thing is, it has been adapting all along. That's what language does. Its entire purpose is communication between human beings (not all of whom have English degrees). We use it to tell people what we mean. The goal is that we understand each other, and we usually do.

And besides, they say, Everyone is doing it already.

We grammar purists have struggled, rewriting and rephrasing to avoid awkward usage of "he" and "she." Even as we sought each other out to listen to our workaround sentences ("does this sound weird?"), the most honest among us admitted we had a problem. More and more writers have deserted us, sliding almost unconsciously over to the camp where Singular They erases problems. Everyone there has Their fair share, sunshine is plentiful, and there are never any oil spills. It's a beautiful life, free of the pressure to do the right thing. I hear they drink margaritas on the beach while they write all day, and the low humidity favors vintage leather-bound book collecting.

It sounds nice.

Maybe instead of cursing the American Dialect Society for surrendering to unrepentant rule breakers, we should be thanking them for having the courage to boldly face the issue. After all, if Everyone is doing it, They must be right.

The tide has finally, offically turned. All the red pens in the world can't hold it back. We might as well join them on the beach.

Today, though, when Facebook reminds me it is the birthday of a friend and encourages me to wish "them" a Happy Birthday, I shudder...not so much because the word "them" sounds wrong, but because what was wrong is now right, and there's not a thing we can do about it.

That's pretty scary, isn't it?