Say ‘they’, it’s the civilised thing to do

The Ox­ford English Dictionary’s word of the year is the gen­der-neu­tral per­sonal pro­noun ‘they’. It’s time we got used to us­ing it in re­la­tion to non-bi­nary peo­ple

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We are used to “word of the year” be­ing some­thing aw­ful from the in­ter­net or street slang. “Youthquake”, “vape” and “selfie” have re­cently fig­ured in the Ox­ford English Dictionary’s vari­a­tion on that handy col­umn-filler (yeah, I know, sorry). As is so of­ten the case with Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions, Mer­ri­amWeb­ster dictionary has, how­ever, gen­er­ally taken a more sober ap­proach. “Jus­tice,” “fem­i­nism” and “sur­real” – all words with long his­to­ries – have fig­ured in re­cent years. For 2019, recog­nis­ing on­line searches, the dictionary has sided for a very par­tic­u­lar us­age of a very com­mon word. The word of the year is “they” when used as a sin­gu­lar per­sonal pro­noun for non-bi­nary peo­ple.

This is good be­cause it re­flects a gen­uine and wel­come change in lan­guage. It is also good be­cause it will an­noy peo­ple who de­serve to be an­noyed. You know who I mean. They used to be re­tired ad­mi­rals and lady cap­tains of sub­ur­ban golf clubs. “Look what they’ve done to ‘gay’! Per­fectly good word that I once used daily to de­scribe my state when drink­ing a gin be­fore Gar­den­ers’ Ques­tion Time.

If I use it now peo­ple’ll think I am a flaming . . .” And so forth. Now those peo­ple are, among other sorts, ju­nior soft­ware en­gi­neers from Phoenix who, when not whin­ing about “they” be­ing used to de­scribe a sin­gu­lar en­tity, bel­low at “So­cial Jus­tice War­riors” for cre­at­ing a “woke” trav­esty of Star Wars. It would be an aw­ful shame if one of them were to have an apoplec­tic fit.

Mer­riam-Web­ster must have had a night­mare count­ing the men­tions of such a com­mon word and de­ter­min­ing which fell into the cor­rect lin­guis­tic cat­e­gory, but they’re stick­ing with the claim that searches for “they” were 313 per cent higher this year than they were in 2018. The widen­ing of us­age was em­pha­sised in March when Sam Smith de­clared them­selves non-bi­nary and – as you will al­ready have gath­ered from this sen­tence – con­firmed that hence­forth the singer’s pro­nouns were “they/them”. “I un­der­stand there will be many mis­takes and mis­gen­der­ing, but all I ask is you please please try,” they wrote. “I hope you can see me like I see my­self now.” We’ll come back to the first bit of that.

To be fair to those who balk at the shift, there has been some disin­gen­u­ous­ness in the ar­gu­ment, made by pro­po­nents, that there is noth­ing new go­ing on here. English has hith­erto had no gen­derneu­tral sin­gu­lar per­sonal pro­noun to use when we have yet to es­tab­lish who we’re talk­ing about. “He or she” was there as an

I see my­self.’

op­tion, but that us­age be­comes enor­mously clunky when re­peated through­out a para­graph. “He or she will make a speech while his or her No­bel Prize is be­ing trans­ferred to his or her suite. He or she will then . . .” And so on.

One so­lu­tion, of course – still not un­com­mon, alas – is to just stick with a mas­cu­line per­sonal pro­noun. Men are, the im­plicit ar­gu­ment goes, the de­fault set­tings for hu­man be­ings. Ben­jamin Dreyer, copy edi­tor and au­thor of the es­sen­tial Dreyer’s English, ain’t hav­ing that. “I’m hav­ing thoughts about writ­ers who per­sist in us­ing the al­legedly epicene ‘he,’ and they’re not nice thoughts,” he wrote re­cently. (Dreyer ap­plauds Mer­riam-Web­ster’s in­clu­sion of the non-bi­nary “they/them”.)

In re­cent years it has be­come ac­cepted prac­tice to use the third per­son plu­ral in­stead of the baggy “he or she”. My un­der­stand­ing is that most re­tired ad­mi­rals and golf-club lady cap­tains are fans of the Great Bri­tish Bake Off. They will have heard Paul and Prue, when judg­ing the tech­ni­cal chal­lenge, re­fer to each uniden­ti­fied baker as “they”. That sort of thing.

It is, how­ever, not cor­rect to sug­gest that this us­age is iden­ti­cal to the one ac­knowl­edged in Mer­riam-Web­ster’s word of the year. The sup­posed gram­mat­i­cal in­fe­lic­ity is the same – “they” is stand­ing in for an in­di­vid­ual – but, in the cur­rent case, we are not nec­es­sar­ily un­sure of that per­son’s iden­tity. They may, for in­stance, have been con­firmed as the bloke who sang the theme tune to Spec­tre. It re­quires, for most of us, an in­tel­lec­tual leap (or hop, any­way) to re­fer to a spe­cific per­son as “they”. Smith ac­knowl­edged that in their state­ment. They al­lowed that peo­ple will get this wrong and ask only that we try to write as sug­gested.

It is worth tak­ing that leap (or hop). Not be­cause we fear can­cel­la­tion by the imag­i­nary hordes of So­cial Jus­tice War­riors. Not be­cause we’ve been brain­washed by the fa­bled Woke Po­lice. It is worth mak­ing that shift be­cause it is the po­lite thing to do. The civilised pro­ce­dure is al­ways to call peo­ple what they want to be called. It is not that long ago that cor­re­spon­dents to news­pa­per let­ters pages scoffed at con­struc­tions such as “African-Amer­i­can” or “in­dige­nous peo­ple”. They got over it. Or they died.

Be nice. It’s Christ­mas.


Sam Smith: ‘I hope you can see me like

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