Will They (Tweeters) Change Grammar?

by | Aug 17, 2009 | Writing Matters Blog | 1 comment

It’s not news that language evolves. Nor is it news that the Internet has accelerated the evolution. So no wonder grammar has become a hot topic among Twitter users.  

The conversation is focused on a grammatical oddity: we have a gender-neutral plural pronoun they but not a gender-neutral singular pronoun.  If you are talking about more than one person you’d write: “They all keep in touch by texting.” But if you are referring to just one person, you’ve got to be gender-specific: “He (or she) keeps in touch by texting.”

Perhaps it is Twitter’s limit of 140 characters per tweet that has pushed this debate to the forefront. Why spend nine characters writing he or she when you can do it with four (they). Twitterers are asking: “Why can’t we have a gender-neutral singular pronoun?”  Among the nominees: s/he, he/she, shhe.  Or why can’t we use they as a singular and plural pronoun? “Anyone who thinks they qualify for the bonus should contact their supervisor.”

Of course grammar traditionalists say we already have a gender-neutral singular pronoun: he.  But since the 1970s, we’ve been making language gender neutral. Chairperson has replaced chairman, mail carrier has replaced mailman, flight attendant has replaced stewardess. And: Each applicant will have his or her loan documents reviewed.”

Some grammarians have thrown in the towel on the they-as-singular-pronoun debate: R.W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, writes that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English. The Chicago Manual of Style straddles the fence. Though some writers are comfortable with the occasional use of they as a singular pronoun, some are not, and it is better to do the necessary work to recast a sentence or, other options having been exhausted, use he or she.” 

I’m not about to weigh in on this grammar controversy. (If you think the health care debate is nasty…) Instead, I’m offering three character-light options for editing this sentence: Each applicant will have his loan documents reviewed by the committee. (71 characters)

Three Twitter-Friendly Work-Arounds for the Singular/Plural Pronoun Problem

  1. Use a plural noun.
    Applicants will have their loan documents reviewed by the committee. (68 characters)
  2. Eliminate pronouns when possible.
    Each applicant will have loan documents reviewed by the committee. (66 characters)
  3. Use second person pronouns you or your.
    The committee will review your loan documents. (a slim 46 characters!)

What’s your opinion on the they-as-singular-pronoun debate? Please post your comments.

— Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)

Tags: Grammar and usage, Twitter, Usage

1 Comment

  1. I’m of the “mountain-out-of-a-molehill” opinion. I, a female, see nothing wrong with defaulting to a male pronoun. It is just a default. If we use a plural pronoun, it will also become a default, but one that is more awkward. That said, I agree with Marilyn and the CMOS that it may be best just to rewrite the sentence.

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