Opinion | Knowing When ‘They’ Means One

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About “Irene? Oh, they left an hour ago” or “Bernard accidentally cut himself.

Since changing a language by fiat is so difficult, I know that my proposal here should be qualified as modest. But suggest me as I have: would it make the new “they” a little easier to handle if it was used with a single tense marker?

People over 35 often ask, “Should we say ‘they want’ or ‘they want’?” They ask me. I always answer that the correct form is “they want” but should it be? Instead we can say this, which makes perfect and intuitive grammatical sense:

Singular: I want, you want, he/she/they want

Many: We want, you want, they want

In the current system, “you want to clip the cat’s nails” can refer to an individual or more than one person. Context usually informs the meaning, but if we use “they want to clip the cat’s nails” when referring to just one person, it makes things a little clearer.

Poor little “they” had a hard time in the past years. Over the years, we have been taught that it is wrong to use “they” in the singular – “man cannot help his birth” because there is so much about “them” that is inherent and inescapable. Never mind that even Chaucer uses “them” in the singular, and that the figurative sentence I have just used is “vanity fair” from Thackeray.

Thankfully, this pox on the singular “them” has begun to ease over the past 20 years or so. The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster say it’s acceptable, and Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh said in 2015: “It’s a no-brainer to allow ‘them’ for a non-gender-conforming person.” Having done that, why not let it be the most stressful of those ‘he or she’ situations?”

But in some sections “they” accepted, rested on the hot seat in others; It has been derided as the mainstream version of Vigilance or lamented as confusing.

Regardless, I guess the new “them” is with us. Not just because it was chosen as the American Dialect Association’s word of the year in 2015. It is a principle of linguistics that what is good in linguistics is what guides it. Start with young people and the new “they” is commonly used for people under 35. (It has mixed reception among people between 35 and 55 and is often rejected by people over 55, according to a 2019 survey.)

As many discover the new “they”, the use of “he” for “she” and “them” as the same pronoun is not known in the world’s languages. In Rik, the language of Papua New Guinea, there is one pronoun “I,” one pronoun “we,” and one pronoun for both singular and plural “you” — just like in English — and one pronoun “he.” “She” and “They” The new “them” brings English closer to Beric, which some think is good.

But Beric got to where he is today through a regular step-change that all languages ​​have done since ancient times, for example, English changed the verb “to use” to the “accustomed” form. Such things happen slowly, if at all, unnoticed by most speakers. The new “them,” for all its worth, suddenly dawns on us. This means that it can be challenging to adapt, especially for older people.

According to language, a pronoun is a deep reaction that has been constantly generated since childhood, in contrast to words and expressions like “jejune” and “so be it.” Many of us young people use the new “they” effortlessly, but for us (sorry, I mean!) old people, it can be more difficult.

One reason I think they “want them” is that English speakers have tried to “correct” the way they use pronouns with verbs; A little while ago. Two hundred years isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, after all, and until the 19th century, even educated people said “were” instead of “were.”

Earlier English had “you” for addressing someone, “you” was only used in the plural. (Actually, the subject form was “ye” and “you” was the object form.) By the 18th century, however, in standard English “you” had relegated to archaic status, with “you” being both singular and plural. However, many speakers felt that it was unnatural to say “you were” to someone – using a plural verb – so they said “you were”.

“Where were you, sir, on December 22, 1799?” asked a lawyer at a trial in New York City in 1800. Today, we associate “you were” with colloquial speech and especially Black English. But this was a very white person in the legal profession. John and Abigail Adams also often used “you were” in their famous letters to each other. However, the self-appointed grammarians, who were highly influential at the time, insisted that the correct form was “thou,” and thus “thou” fell out of regular use. But instead of pulling in “Were You” for the single, technically, it was edited.

My suggestion to consider “them” as a single subject when conjugating the verb is equally convenient and correct. Also, I think the use of “s” at the end of verbs when referring to individuals is so ingrained in the Anglophone mind that it is easier to master.

“They want” may feel a little strange at first, or that someone is acting like an impersonator. But we can assume that “it was you” felt somewhat informal at first, and people got used to it. I particularly like that the use of “s” with the new “they” makes it less grammatical in terms of verbal marking.

In other words, the new “them” will be both progressive and orderly. My case is settled.

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