English As She Is Writ - part eighteen

Pronouns are personal, so they say

Here we go then: in an excess of foolhardiness I’ll venture into the torrid jungle of identity politics – specifically the question of what pronoun to use when the person concerned is non-binary or intersex as regards gender.

For obvious reasons neither ‘he’ or ‘she’ is an appropriate pronoun. A consensus has emerged that the pronoun to use is ‘they’.

There is agreement on this across a wide and diverse range of media. The Guardian newspaper and web site has this in the style guide:

Some people use they/them/their rather than he/she etc. This should be respected at the same time as avoiding creating confusion for the reader.

The US Department of Health offers this advice:

In addition to the binary English pronouns she/her and he/his, some people may use nonbinary pronouns, including the pronouns they/them used as singular terms, among others. When using the singular they, still conjugate the verb as a plural, as in, “they are gender nonbinary.”

Now, I’m an old curmudgeon and you might expect me to rail against the co-opting of the pronoun ‘they’ to refer to a non-binary person. But who am I to set my opinion against the Guardian and the US Department of Health?

No, it’s OK. I can live with it. It’s a done deal.

What really winds me up, though, is that when ‘they’ is used to refer to a non-binary person, conventional grammar is thrown out of the window and this singular person is hitched to plural forms of verbs. The US Department of Health even recommends this approach in the text quoted above.

It makes no sense. Consider the following three statements.

  •                 He is male.
  •                 She is female.
  •                 They are non-binary.

Why does this singular non-binary person take the plural form of the verb ‘to be’?

I’ll take a step back in order to explain about the conjugation of verbs. English is in many respects a simple language: other than people, and the occasional object referred to as having a gender, such as a ship, all nouns are neutral; and verbs are considerably simplified as compared with how they are conjugated in, for instance, French or German.

However, even in English a verb has different forms depending on the noun or pronoun governing it. Here, for instance, is how the verb ‘to eat’ used to be conjugated:

  •                 Singular                                                 Plural
  •                 I eat                                                       We eat
  •                 Thou eatest                                          Ye eat
  •                 He or she eateth                                  They eat

The second person singular (thou, thee, thy, thine) is very rarely used these days, and has been almost entirely replaced by a singular form of ‘you’: ‘you eat’, just like the second person plural. (The second person plural has also changed: it used to be ye/you/your/yours, but the ‘ye’ has long since disappeared.)

The third person singular has also changed: the ‘-eth’ ending was already old-fashioned when the King James Bible made considerable use of it. For some reason it was replaced by the ending ’-s’: ‘he eats’.

As can be seen, with ‘you eat’ now the usual second person singular form, then I, you (singular), we, you (plural) and they all take the same form: ‘eat’. Only the third person singular is different: it takes the form ‘eats’.

It seems to me, therefore, that if one is referring to a singular non-binary person one should use the verb form appropriate to a singular male or female person – the third person singular form. The verb to eat would be conjugated as follows.

  •                 Singular                                                 Plural
  •                 I eat                                                       We eat
  •                 You (singular) eat                               You (plural) eat
  •                 He, she or they (singular) eats         They (plural) eat

I acknowledge that at first it seems odd to read a sentence such as this:

                Robin is non-binary; they lives in Birmingham and commutes to London once a week.

But it makes sense, and it makes it clear that ‘they’ refers to a single person.

Using the third person plural form to refer to a sole individual is a recipe for confusion. Try this:

                The duo writes songs as a team: Debbie provides the music while Robin, who is non-binary, writes the lyrics. They create worlds of magical intensity.

Who, in the above example, is ‘they’? Robin? Or Debbie and Robin? It’s impossible to know. One’s instinct is to assume that ‘they’ refers to both Debbie and Robin, as ‘they create’ is the plural form. But that may not be what the writer intended. ‘They creates worlds of magical intensity’ would make it clear that in this case ‘they’ is singular, and therefore must refer to Robin alone.

As I write this I’m becoming less enamoured with ‘they’ as a suitable pronoun for a non-binary or intersex person. It’s just confusing. The pronoun ‘they’ has a specific meaning: it is used to refer to more than one person. Its raison d’être is to indicate plurality.

I am of course aware that the they/them/their/theirs set of pronouns has been in use, as a singular pronoun, for hundreds of years in situations where the gender of the person concerned is not known, or is known to be from a group containing more than one gender. Here are a few examples.

  •                 At this mixed school each pupil chooses their own lunch menu.
  •                 Whether the event is attended by the King or Queen, I will be on hand to welcome them.
  •                 There can be only one winner, and the prize will be theirs.

This use of ‘they’ is very common – perhaps increasingly so. I was taught at school, long ago, in circumstances such as the examples above to use a ‘his or her’ formula, like this:

        • At this mixed school each pupil chooses his or her own lunch menu.
        • Whether the event is attended by the King or Queen, I will be on hand to welcome him or her.
        • There can be only one winner, and the prize will be his or hers.

However I concede that the construction is clumsy, and also that there is no point in arguing with a practice that has become embedded in the language. (Although I confess that I still tend to use the ‘his or her’ construction in writing.)

But. There is a difference between using the ‘they’ pronoun set when the gender of the person is unknown or could be either male or female, and when the person concerned is non-binary or intersex. And the difference is that the former rarely creates ambiguity of meaning (although sometimes it does), whereas the latter – as demonstrated by the Debbie and Robin example above – all too often does.

As I have argued elsewhere in this blog, writing is a separate from of communication from speech. Writing is the form used for instruction manuals, legal documents, government reports, letters and e-mails and, lacking speech’s tool chest of intonation, facial expression, hand gestures, and non-verbal noises, it needs to be much more precise than speech. When writing, it is important to be clear whether one is referring to one person or to more than one.

I’m veering towards the conclusion that what is needed is a new singular pronoun to sit alongside he/him/his and she/her/hers.

It won’t happen. There is no English-language academic or governmental body with the remit or authority to create and dictate new words; and in any case ‘they’ has already become the widely accepted pronoun. So I think we’re stuck with using a plural pronoun for a singular person, and the accompanying confusion and grammatical grating.

And, much as I dislike failing to reach a definite conclusion, that is where I’ll have to leave the subject. I have, I hope, indicated why the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun has the potential to cause problems; and that English as she is writ is an international convoy of conventions and customs that never stops moving. 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.