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Crabby Old Lady Throws a Grammar Fit

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.


COL -- I agree with you, for the simple reason that it obfuscates rather than elucidates.

Would prefer "s/he" to "they".

They wrote a good blog post today!

As writer/editor I was often stymied at the use of the he vs she problem. For a while I followed the he/she, then s/he.

All was bewildering to the readers. So I initiated the singular/plural pronouns.

My readers read right through it!

As you say, language changes. I am happy to accept the terms 'they' suggest/want. It's a bit of a mouthful/headache at first but I'm sure we'll get used to it - as we did 'Ms' and 'gay', for example.

COL, I'm with you!

A...I give up.

I am with you Ronni. I tried to think of a new word combining she, he and it but that’s never going to fly. Back to the thinking pose.

Our language has always evolved and continues to do so. It is the right thing to do. The future is non binary.

PS I think most people do not need to look up cis gender.

This ticks me off! Like you said, how hard would it be to invent an entirely new word instead of messing around with a word that only confuses the reader when used the "new" way.

There are other singular pronouns now in use as well as They/Them. One is zie/zir/zirs which is new to me. The gender pronoun discussion can be very complex . My university age daughter brought me up to speed over the winter break.

I know one dude that will probably not embrace this new speak. I fall within the generation that had grammar in school along with cursive writing.
Yes things change, but not the way "they" think?

My wife and I often say: "If we ever find out who "they" are, look out!".

This one will not be going away. Because I have a non-binary god daughter, I have been dealing with the “they” phenomenon for several years now and have gotten used to it.

I’m more concerned with the apparent disappearance of the word “fewer.” “Less” is being used more and more in all sentences describing diminishment, (which auto-correct is telling me is no longer a word). For example, “There are less rules about grammar these days.” Ain’t that the truth!

What Kathleen said ! 😄

I got a real chuckle out of this post today, but I don't think one has to be old (or crabby) to see this for what it is--hooey! I'm not about to start using 'they' or 'them' in the singular!

BTW, I confess I DIDN'T know what 'cisgender' was--but had a real laugh when I googled it! Well, we don't have Mark Twain, Will Rogers or Erma Bombeck with us anymore, but I'm glad we have Ronni :)

Years ago when I gave workshops I predicted the word they would become common usage but not for the reasons given. It's simply easier to use 'they say' rather than 'one says' or 'people say'. And it's certainly easier than stumbling over 'he/she says'. Words change meaning, but I don't like they way the word has been appropriated now.

As someone who loved the book and movie Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, I really miss the original meaning of the word gay. I guess my age is on display.

We went through this when women became annoyed at the default 'he.' I was fine with s/he but it never caught on. Now we are finally recognizing that gender is a spectrum, not an either/or, this topic raises its awkward head again. We sure do resist any change relating to gender!

I don't care. I am too old to worry. I will follow traditional meanings and usage. But, I do respect whatever gender one thinks they are or wants to be and if am personally asked by an individual to address them in a certain way, I will. Thank You Ronni for the effort.

As a retired editor, I couldn't agree more that "they" is and should remain a plural pronoun. Invent a new word if you must. ("Ms" is a good example.) Or recast your sentence. And by the way, don't call me cis female. I'm female and was born that way. Those wanting to call themselves something other than male or female, fine. I'll respect that. As long as they respect that I'm female. "Female" needs no qualifier.

(Yes, I too am a crabby old woman.)

I think of the "thank you" in Portuguese: obregado to a man, obregada to a woman.
and as the kids text: LOL

Yes, it's awkward, and I would have preferred heshe or she, sh-he, you get the drift. But, being cis, I never suffered more than the average threats of rape, physical abuse, etc.................most of the young people who are defining themselves now as "they" have suffered a lot more. And it's their world now, in most ways. So I will adapt. The young people with whom I've spoken about this language issue, have really put some thought into it, and you know what? They don't think the way I do! Though I love beautiful writing, and correct spelling and grammar, I also like when groups, especially those who have been kept out of the ranks of the privileged, bend language to their own uses.

Beautifully put Salinda!

What a waste of time being crabby and narrow minded.

As long as “they” don’t insist on rewriting the classics. 🙄🙄

I have a long list of outstanding books still to read before I leave the planet...

The singular they is not as new as you think. Shakespeare used the singular they. I had no problem with the article you quoted as the persons name was used before they was used as a referent. I’m in favor of descriptive grammar not prescriptive grammar. This 79 year old grandmother of two non-binary grandchildren will continue to use they.

Did you know that "you" was originally the plural only with the additional usage by low status to very high status individuals? This worked it's way down and now we are all "you". Language is a river that keeps on rolling along. I'm a crabby old lady, too, but I have made my peace with grammatical errors.

I don't see the danger of "they" becoming obligatory usage, which may have been implied by COL's post. I continue using "she" and "he" when I know that is called for in most practical/obvious situations. I do like the freedom of being able to use "they" when I don't know the gender or preference of someone. My husband hates the usage of "they" in that context so he's with COL on that score.

I'm in my 70s, but I don't see this as a new usage. I've always used 'they' in a singular form. It may be a regional usage I suppose.

Another writer-editor here. I've read some grammarians who are perfectly happy to see "they" as both singular and plural, depending on the context. (Plenty of words depend entirely on context.)

I don't like it either. But I strongly approve of it. It took me a while. I also don't like the rise of the word "gender" as a word that isn't strictly a grammarian term-of-art. But I find that, over years while I wasn't looking, it became general usage. Gender is apparently everything about your sexual identity that isn't within about an inch of your legs. So, okay. I've been corrected several times in the past for objecting to the new use of the word "gender," and I've finally managed to get on that bus.

"Cisgender" irritates me too, but, again, I approve of it. I know trans people, and they are very clear that they KNEW their whole lives that their genitals simply were a genetic mistake. They're not crazy. I believe them. There are people born with double sets of genitals, or missing some parts, or other variations. It seems perfectly plausible that some are born with body parts that just don't agree with their brain chemistry, metabolism, etc.

Language must continue to change; when it quits changing, it's a dead language. These changes are a small price to pay for the liberation of folks whose sexual identity, for millennia, were a matter of lifelong shame, rejection, danger, and hiding. People used to (and still occasionally do) KILL themselves over their atypical sexual identity. Now, we are coming around to--gasp--allowing them to live, as they are, with their own self knowledge. That seems to me like a really good thing.

Ho boy! Just read an article directed at teens which attempted to explain the current gender descriptions. I have to say that I’m not likely to get it all right anytime soon. But perhaps for young people these gender ids may just flow through their lives along with new usage pronouns.
I’m hoping some clever word master will create something other than 'they, etc' in the way of pronouns. I enjoy the English language as it has been while I was making my way through life, but I’m sure my Mother would be somewhat concerned over some of my word usage, not the least of which is my comfort with curses.

Absolutely agree. We need a new--singular--word.

I (or should it be "we"?) find the most troubling aspect of adopting a singular "they" is the inevitability of its use/non-use as a political litmus test. Those who don't adapt will be branded as some sort of "ist" or "phobe" by many of those who do.

My university professional son recently asked me, as they periodically does, to edit their updated resume and cover letter. They were replete with them's, their's and they's in reference to singular antecedents. When I corrected them for them, they objected and politely educated their dad that they was out of step with their emerging norms in their university environment there. They was adamant about them. Not wishing to seem obtuse, I acceded to them and left them there as they had been written by them. They was happier that their language-stickler dad had seen the error of their outdated ways, and appreciated them for their openmindedness, thanking them then and there. They were relieved by their son's understanding and patience with their ignorance. Also flabbergasted, gobsmacked and discombobulated (all sadly underused words!) by the entire experience. Ms.--wait-- Nicole Russell (they of frequent conservative verbal prestidigitation) asks, "What does it do to people, and to culture, to say words now have definitions that have been completely fabricated out of thin air?" But don't all words originate so? "Rock" didn't spring from an object's innate rockness. Somebody blurted the syllable, and others took to using it. Also "discomfited," "querelous," and "adamantine." All of which probably apply to this old English major in this instance. But they'll get over it eventually.

I have a hard enough time reading now as it is. Just what I need, more confusion. I'm still saying: 'Mom and I went to town' instead of Mom and me.

As a former English teacher, I’m not enamored of the singular use of “they.” However, I was horrified by the conservative columnist’s dismissive tone. It isn’t ”progressive” to address a sexually different person by whatever pronoun they want—it is simply respectful.
I happened to have a heartfelt conversation with a millennial about this over Christmas, and when I protested that singular “they” use leads to confusion, not clarity, she turned me on to the pronoun “zee”, which I wish would catch on in place of “they.” Bonus, the speaker sounds French. Come on, Webster!

I’ll vote for coining a new word(s) in preference to changing they/them/their — wouldn't that be simpler for everyone? What’s another pronoun or two or three?

Cisgender was an unfamiliar term to me I don’t recall previously encountering, though I recently explored some more of the gender/sex word changes. At least language (and people?) are finally catching up with what science has learned about differences in the human body and brain. Likely this won't all be resolved in my lifetime, but I wonder how long it will take?

Good one Ronnie -- I agree "they" is not grammatical when used for a singular person.

What gets me is the implication that "they" are not one person but two. Such an individual may have double sets of feelings etc, but each of "them" is only one person and gets only one vote.

I recently went to an OB/GYN for a minor issue and was asked on the intake form to indicate my gender -- I filled it in "GUESS !"

As for pronouns, which are close to being required in some organizations, mine are:
who? whom, whomever.

"Ms" Was brilliant! Until someone comes up with something as good , the new terms of address will have to do. While I find them awkward and confusing, I remind myself that it is a small price to pay for the comfort of others. I recall my Jewish childhood in Irish Catholic Boston of the 1940"s - each "Merry Christmas" singling me out as one who didn't belong. Those using that phrase probably had no idea of how deeply it stung. As I imagine I have no idea how deeply "he" and "she" hurts someone who doesn't fit the binary model . I waited a long time for "Happy Holidays" They can't wait a generation for new words. Justice deferred is justice denied. Ann

In my former career as a technical writer I have used “they” etc when it was my intent to not specify a gender. Too often the male gender was assumed and some folks thought “he or she” was just too complicated. Language changes, we don’t speak or write English as our forebears of many years ago did and if humans don’t kill themselves off our descendants will speak and write (or maybe not write at all!) differently from us. One of my kids has told me that their friend should be referred to as “they” and not only that, but I should say “they is”. A bridge too far for me but I don’t really object, I just probably won’t remember all the time. Grammar is a tool, it helps us communicate, but it has to adapt to changing attitudes.

Language should be used to clarify and explain; using "they" as a singular pronoun does neither. It muddies information. I agree with the writer who said we need a new word. Sometimes new words fly and sometimes they don't. "Posslq" clarified a relationship for the IRS but we don't hear it used anymore. (Google "Posslq" and read Charles Osgood's delightful poem using it.)

I'm all for creating new words - after all it is being done all the time with text messaging - how about "hshe" or "hesh" - not sure how that would translate for the possessive "hersh"? As was mentioned Ms was adopted - although somewhat reluctantly in some quarters! Here's hoping for some creative thinking - surely not too much to ask - or is it?

We add an "s" to "he" to denote a "she"!

Let's add a "t" to "she" to denote a "they"!

So, "tshe" is the new pronoun and a new word!

It can be pronounce as a "ch"!

I dislike the stealing of perfectly good words like they and them.I favor coining new words just as Ms was coined years ago.

Gender neutral pronouns such as "ze" were proposed by feminists in the 70s and didn't catch on. Maybe it was just too soon politically. "Ms." made it, but it doesn't critique a binary gender system. Although I'm more fanatical about grammar than most people, even most of my academic colleagues, I think we just have to let respect for others override grammar in the case of "they."

Not that it matters, but I think the word of the year should have been "collusion." Buy hey, that's just me.

I read a newspaper article a few months ago that used the word "they". I had no idea who "they" was & re-read the article several times. It seemed vague which is the intent, I guess.

In conversation, "women" and "men" have been replaced by "people". I do it myself because it has become the custom.

I really don't like unisex bathrooms.

As some have suggested above, a new pronoun would be useful; it's too bad none has taken hold.
"They"--well, it was already used informally as a singular pronoun, so I can adapt.

But what really sets my hair on fire grammar-wise is the use of a subject pronoun, often "I," in the object position: " ...this question came up for my husband and I" is the latest example I've heard. Do people think this is more formal?? Eesh--this particular change makes me feel anachronistic and just plain ancient!

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