With increasing frequency, Crabby Old Lady finds herself in despair over the trajectory of the world on both the macro and micro levels.
For example, in terms of macro, the Australia fires are only the latest harbinger of even more horrific climate disasters to come. In the micro world, it is the word “they.”
As December comes to a close, quite a few organizations issue a “word of the year” and they rarely come up with the same one. This year, the Merriam Webster dictionary's choice got the most attention for “they”, and its derivatives “them” and “their”, with a new and additional definition as single pronouns.
According to those who advocate for the new usage, the point is to avoid the gender pronouns “he”, “she”, “him” and “her” so that people who do not identify themselves as male or female will not be forced to choose words that do not describe them.
Crabby's brief survey of responses to this new definition of they, them, their reveals that a variety of professional wordsmiths overwhelming applaud the change. Apparently they believe that a sentence like this one - “Crabby Old Lady and their friend Chris often have lunch at their favorite sushi place” - makes sense.
Molly Woodstock, who is host of a podcast titled Gender Reveal, spoke with NPR about the new usage:
”It makes a lot of sense to me because I think that they as a singular pronoun, as a pronoun for certain nonbinary folks is increasingly moving from only being talked about in queer and trans circles to the mainstream public consciousness.”
Benjamin Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House, and the author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Writing in the Washington Post, he too embraces the new usage because, he says, it is the right thing.
Jane Noll, an instructor and coordinator of undergraduate affairs in the University of South Florida Department of Psychology, told WRLN Radio,
“'We have to remember, for many of us, it's been difficult all along to use ‘he’ or ‘she,’ she said. 'To be respectful of people who don't identify as he or as she, I think we need to put forth the effort and it is going to be an effort for some people.'”
Respect doesn't appear to be an issue for another advocate, Merriam-Webster editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, who has no trouble sneaking in a dig at old people:
“Many Americans,” he told The New York Times, “especially older ones, stumble over the use of 'they' as a singular pronoun. For those who haven’t kept up, their complaint is” that “they” as a singular pronoun is ungrammatical.”
You betcha it is, Mr. Sokolowski, and grammar is essential to clear communication. Can you, dear reader, translate this short bio from The New York Times?
”Farhad Manjoo became a Times Opinion columnist in 2018.
“Before that, they wrote The Times’ State of the Art column, covering the technology industry’s efforts to swallow up the world. They have also written for Slate, Salon, Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal.
To their chagrin, their 2008 book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact World, accurately predicted our modern age of tech-abetted echo chambers and 'alternative facts.'
“Farhad Manjoo was born in South Africa and emigrated with their family to Southern California in the late 1980s. They live in Northern California with their wife and two children.”
(For the record, Manjoo's Wikipedia entry notes that, “A cisgender (look it up) man, Manjoo prefers to be referred to with singular they pronouns.”)
Crabby Old Lady is still cross-eyed trying to translate that bio from from its mangled English. Not that she can't do it, but untangling those pronoun references just about halves reading speed.
English is one of the richest languages on Earth. We add new words all the time. Others fall out of use and some change meaning. That's all to the good.
At its best, language clarifies and makes it possible, when used well, for us to understand both one another and complex ideas. At its worst, as with the current American president and his sycophants who lie with abandon, it sows confusion, divides people and nations, and can bring us to the brink of war.
Does an additional meaning of they, them, their matter in such a world? Maybe not but instead of unifying people, in this case it divides them. If you think that's overstating it, read this piece from a conservative columnist who agrees with Crabby Old Lady but for very different reasons.
It would be useful to have a word for non-gender people. But it would be better to have one that doesn't poach a perfectly good word that does the heavy lifting in between more glamorous ones.
“They” is right up there in the top 20 most common English words like the, of, to, and, a, in, it, etc. Surely it couldn't be hard to invent a new word for non-gender people.