Guest Post: To each their own

The following is a guest post by Marcia Johnston. Marcia lives in Portland, Oregon, at the intersection of Writing, User Experience, Information Architecture, and Content Strategy. She is the president of Marcia Riefer Johnston, Inc.

Marcia Johnston

Marcia Johnston

They has gone singular. So have their, them, and themselves. We’re assailed every day by sentences like these:

  • “What’s annoying to me isn’t someone using their phone at the table, it’s the people who think I shouldn’t use mine.”
  • “Equity is the right of every person to advance their well-being.”
  • “This is a great chance for anyone looking to start their own business.”
  • “Open the profile of a friend, and add their phone number so it’s easy to call them.”
  • “Health management allows one to take care of themselves.”
  • “As a drowning man wants air, as the lover seeks their beloved, so must you focus on what you want.”

I understand how we arrived at this unfortunate unpluraling of pronouns. English fails us. It offers us no word for his-or-her. We have no lui, which those lucky French can say when they mean to him or her. Our singular third-person pronouns — he, his, him, himself, she, hers, her, herself — are all gender-bound. None of these stand-ins stands in perfectly for person or anyone or each.

  • He (“To each his own”) covers both masculine and feminine conventionally. But this usage has fallen out of favor because of its apparent bias.
  • She (“To each her own”) simply reverses the bias.
  • S/he (“To each his/her own”) is unpronounceable.
  • He or she (“To each his or her own”) works, but few say it.

People who reject these imperfect choices have to fill the need somehow. With alarming frequency, they turn to the conveniently gender-neutral, if inconveniently plural, they. (“To each their own.”)

Co-opting they is no solution! This practice has become so common, though, that most contemporary style guides now acknowledge the trend as irreversible.

A moment of silence, please, while I recite the Serenity Prayer, especially the part about accepting what I can’t change.

Technology has exploded the use of the singular their. Biznik tells me that Jane, whom it recognizes as J-a-n-e, wants to add me to their network. LinkedIn reports that J-o-h-n has updated their profile. Biznik and LinkedIn don’t finesse male-or-female nouns here. They n-e-u-t-e-r Jane and John.

We can do better. We don’t have the singular pronouns we want, but we have acceptable alternatives.

  • Turn singulars into plurals. (“As lovers seek their beloveds…”)
  • Go ahead, use his or her. (“As the lover seeks his or her beloved…”)
  • Switch occasionally between feminine and masculine. (loverhisloverher)
  • Switch to a direct address: you. (“Lover, seek your beloved…”)
  • Switch to the more inclusive we. (“As we lovers seek our beloveds…”)
  • Remove the pronoun altogether. (“As the lover seeks the beloved…”)

A person must stand his/her ground.

A person must stand their ground.

Stand your ground.

Marcia invites all word lovers to visit her blog, Word Power, or to email her at marcia_r_johnston@me.com. To save her contact information instantly to your smartphone, use any barcode-scanner app to scan this QR code:
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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

25 thoughts on “Guest Post: To each their own

  1. Eddie VanArsdall

    Nice post, Marcia. It led me to your blog, which is now bookmarked on Delicious under both writing and editing.

    As an editor, I try to be open to usage trends, but I also recommend rewriting to avoid the usage of “they” or “their” in the third person singular. My recommendation sparks many lively discussions with copywriters, who sometimes think I’m being too pedantic.

    I am open to changing language trends, and I monitor leading style guides for updates. I also monitor respected news and technology sites. I’m still straddling the fence about “they” as singular, precisely because English doesn’t provide an alternative. And I’ll admit, this usage has begun to sound more natural to my ear, and I’m sure I use it in speech without thinking about it.

    On a similar note, I have edited a lot of technical content and UI labels/messages, and I see a lot of unnatural trends taking hold. For example, I find that software developers have forgotten the difference between “log in” (two words as verb/imperative) and “login” ( one word as noun/adjective). “Login” is now the more commonly used version (except when I’m the editor on the project ;-).

    Whether deemed correct or incorrect, usage doesn’t just take hold these days; it catches fire. I have a theory that at some point, various industries are going to say “OK, it’s time to add some order to the chaos.” Editorial oversight is a significant part of the content strategy trend, and I’m glad that it’s receiving so much emphasis.

  2. Janet Swisher

    Indefinite ‘they’ is hardly a new construct. It was used by respected authors such as Shakespeare and Austen. Native spakers know what it means and how to use it. (I attribute its use in cases where the referent’s gender is known to programmer laziness.) It rarely creates ambiguity, certainly no more than the use of the same forms for singular and plural in the second person, about which no one has complained in a couple hundred years (my Quaker relatives notwithstanding). Does thou wish to restore that dintinction also? :-)

  3. Eddie VanArsdall

    First things first: Hi, Janet.

    To answer your question, absolutely not! I could easily adapt to the use of “they” as a multi-functional pronoun, especially in light of the multi-functional “you.”

    You’re the second person to bring up Shakespeare as a reference for this usage during one of my recent online discussions. Someone on the STC CICSIG (you, maybe?), brought it up on a similar thread.

    I see potential for a “reinvent language” sprint where we could all come up with alternatives for these cumbersome conventions. Oh, wait, the communicating world is already doing that for us!

    And by the way, isn’t it “Dost thou…”? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) ;-)

  4. Janet Swisher

    Actually, in modern English, it would be “does thee”, since we’ve also lost the distinction between subjective case and objective case in the 2nd person (i.e., we no longer use ‘ye’), without any public outcry :-)

  5. John Hewitt

    You can’t fight the language. They and their are changing, and no blog post is going to stop that. We don’t have a national academy of language that makes these decisions. The people decide how to use the words, and in this case it is only a matter of time. No one has come up with a new word, and “his or hers” is just plain terrible. They and their are already being accepted, and frankly, they are the best choice of a bad lot.

  6. Marcia Johnston

    I’m enjoying this conversation.

    Tom, Thank you for the opportunity to share my post with your readers.

    Eddie, Thoughtful reply. I like your theory that interest in editorial oversight is growing along with attention to content strategy.

    Janet, Interesting point about Shakespeare and Austen.

    John, You’re right about fighting language trends. I plan to go down swinging anyway and to have a good time doing it.

    Everyone, If you’ve read this far, you’ll appreciate the irony of the message that I just received from WordPress. “Howdy. [Name] recently read your post, titled ‘To each their own’ and enjoyed it enough to click the ‘Like’ button. Here is the post they liked [link], and here is their info [URL, etc.]. You might want to see what they’re up to. Perhaps you will like their posts as much as they liked yours.”

  7. mike

    It’s really unfortunate that grammatical issues, and the language itself, are held as having some sort of moral force (“English fails us”, “imperfect choices”). English — language — just is. Grammar is value neutral and does not answer to some sort of contract or higher authority or covenant in which it can “fail.”

    As any working linguist or lexicographer will explain, the _only_ way to determine how a language works is to observe how native speakers use it day to day. That, and that alone, constitutes the language’s grammar. People have many ideas about how language _should_ work, but that’s roughly equivalent to having ideas about how the weather should work: personal opinions about a phenomenon that no one has any direct control over.

    Obviously, we live in a world in which style in language (and in everything else) has social implications. It’s an interesting and useful topic to discuss whether certain usages, dialects, pronunciations, etc., are suitable in the context of some strived-for style. But any such discussion should make it clear that this is, in fact, the point of discussion, and should be explicit about what that style is (“in formal written communications, …”), and should provide (cf Bryan Garner) some sort of reasons based on evidence as to why a particular usage favored or not, reasons that go beyond, effectively, “I don’t like this.” (For example, if respected and competent writers have used and continue to use singular they, where exactly is the proscription on it coming from?)
    As a bit of a contrast, here’s a discussion of the many reasons why singular they is (and always has been) an acceptable usage in English:

    http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/singular-they-and-the-many-reasons-why-its-correct/

    “Technology has exploded the use of the singular their.” Could you show us the numbers you found that suggest that technology has had a specific and measurable impact on the use of they/their with singular antecedents? I imagine you must have done some corpus studies that show usage patterns and have some statistics that show a delta in the incidence of singular “they” in cites that come from technology (whatever in particular might be meant by that — telegraph? typewriters? TV?). These sorts of statistics would help us see that the claim about technology’s impact on this usage is not just due to the Recency Illusion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recency_illusion).

    1. Eddie VanArsdall

      Mike, I am open to changing usage, and I enjoyed reading the opinions in the posts that you referenced. In everyday conversation, I use singular “they.” I am sure that everyone I know uses it, too. I never even give it a second thought.

      But I have long served as a publications editor (and more recently, a website editor). Whoever I’m working for at any given time pays me to enforce rules that are set forth in style guides of their (or in rare cases, my) choosing. So far, none of them have accepted singular “they,” and my job has been to ask writers to recast the sentence. I could go on about other silly conventions that I don’t agree with, such as the American rule that a period should go inside quotation marks. But again, if the chosen house style dictates it, I enforce it. (And BTW, I’ve violated several common style guide conventions in this paragraph.)

      Regardless of whether we follow a convention or rant against it based on language evolution, businesses will most likely strive to maintain consistency in their communications. Even if I favor a different approach or convention, my job is to see that the message is consistent.

  8. mike

    Hi, Eddie. I, too, am an editor, and I, too, spend all day making sure text conforms to the dictates of our several guidelines and that it maintains internal consistency. That’s all the MORE reason, I think, to be clear when making pronouncements about languages usage what the context is opinions for such as the author’s here and to include justifications. When people are viewed as authorities on language, as editors are, they have some responsibility for not propagating confusion about language, such as notions that singular they is always wrong, as opposed to a usage to avoid under very specific circumstances.

    For example, the first cite (“What’s annoying to me isn’t someone using their phone at the table, …”) could well come from a post on Facebook or on Twitter. Are we as editors supposed to tell people that in these contexts — media that mirror conversational usage — people should not use idiomatically acceptable English? Do you edit your own FB/Twitter posts to conform to the style guide(s) you use at work? The problem with a post like this is that it makes no distinction like this.

    As an aside, an odd aspect of the entire discussion about singular they is that people who don’t like it cast about for an alternative and end up concluding that “English fails us” because they simply don’t like the epicene pronoun that we do, in fact, already have in English. (Garner spends over a page — see Sexism (B) — wrestling with ways to try to work around the obvious, which is that “they” is perfectly acceptable in the vernacular, a conclusion with which RHD and Fowler actually agree.)

    1. Eddie VanArsdall

      Mike, I never tell content contributors that usage is “wrong.” I don’t make “pronouncements” of any kind.

      I’m well aware of the positions of both Garner and Fowler. Certainly, Garner asserts that “Though the masculine singular personal pronoun may survive awhile longer as a generic term, it will probably be displaced ultimately by they…” And he’s right. Nevertheless, he also devotes a generous amount of space recommending ways to avoid the usage altogether by rewriting.

      If writers whose words I’ve edited are interested enough to ask for more clarification about my decisions, I often explain that experts don’t all agree with the usage chosen by their organization. I offer additional examples when they ask for them. They are rarely interested, however, and most of them don’t want to have to write content, anyway. They are generally happy to have someone help them make their deadlines and help them conform with organizational standards.

      I don’t serve as editor for social media contexts in any organization. So far, the organizations I’ve worked with have mostly implemented social media internally, and people can write however they want to write, as long as they don’t use profanity and don’t engage in mudslinging. They don’t answer to me, regardless. If someone at a higher level of the organization serves as a public-facing presence on Twitter or Facebook, I am not that person’s editor. I edit my own words on Twitter to make sure my message and any links I’m sharing will fit the character limit. That’s it. I’m as colloquial as I want to be.

      I’ve bookmarked some of the blogs you referenced during this discussion, because I’m open to all opinions. I appreciate the passionately contrarian positions in those blogs, but I don’t find anything I’ve read to be one bit less pedantic than anything that has been said in this thread.

  9. Jay

    Hi Mike,

    Interesting rant about the distinction between grammar rules and how the language “should” work. I wonder if by this same logic, you would find it acceptable to use ‘their’ instead of ‘there’, ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s’ or ‘wear’ instead of ‘where.’

    As more and more writing moves from the formal to the relatively informal (by this I mean the obvious movement to online communication such as Facebook, IM, blogs and online games, and away from offline written materials such as school papers, books, etc.), the language is evolving.

    However, what I find disturbing is the natural tendency to whitewash grammar rules and even basic spelling rules because of a perceived relaxing of those rules due to the medium. If it’s true that “the _only_ way to determine how a language works is to observe how native speakers use it day to day,” we should come to accept that any gibberish written by Twitterers and online gamers today is acceptable English grammar.

    In that case, “wtf noob lol u cna’t even spell!!!” is a perfectly grammatically correct sentence. I mean why not? That’s how native speakers use it day to day. Are we to have no grammar rules whatsoever?

    Here’s a test: go into any online game, read what people are writing and attempt to correct their grammar (you’ll find opportunities within 1-2 minutes most likely). Then time how long it takes someone to yell “grammar nazi” at you.

    Call me a “grammaticaster” if you like. I prefer to live in a world where the English language is given some modicum of respect, where rules exist to differentiate “good” English from “bad,” as well as “proper” from “improper.”

    And I will continue to avoid using the singular they and their whenever possible. As the original post so eloquently put it, instead of “a person should stand his/her ground,” why not just say “stand your ground”?

    One more argument. There are cases where “English fails us.”
    English is no more a perfect language than any other language. It has its deficiencies. Probably the most obvious example is the lack of a plural “you.” In any other language I can think of, there is no awkwardness when writing plural you. In English, we have to resort to grammatically incorrect words such as ‘y’all’ or ‘yous’ if the situation requires distinguishing between singular and plural. I’d say this is a case where English does indeed fail us.

    So basically what I’m saying is, despite the fact that I enjoyed your argument and respect your viewpoint, I disagree with it completely.

    –A grammar nazi

  10. mike

    >I wonder if by this same logic, you would find it acceptable to use ‘their’ instead of ‘there’, ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s’ or ‘wear’ instead of ‘where.’

    No, that’s an incorrect analogy. Your examples are an issue of spelling, which by definition is established by convention. Grammar != spelling. Writing systems are not grammar. Getting a stroke wrong in a Kanji character says nothing about the structure of Japanese.

    (BTW and FWIW, this line of thinking — the “you must believe that anything goes!” argument — is a standard straw-man argument that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how descriptive linguistics works and what descriptive linguists do. For various explanations, try a web search for +”descriptive linguistics” +”anything goes”.)

    Let me give you the anthropological analogy. You go to study a new-found tribe in a jungle or mountaintop somewhere. You spend many years studying their language, after which point you write out a grammar of their language. This is not based on what it says in their language rulebooks; it’s a pre-literate society, so there are no written texts either to consult or to point to as authorities. You are obliged to deduce the rules of that language solely from how the people seem to be using it.

    Question: how does that differ from deducing the rules of how English works? If you were an alien from Mars whose 9 senses did not include sight, and you were obliged to figure out this “English language” business based on how people seem to _speak_ it, what sorts of conclusions would you come to?

    Let’s return to the original point. For virtually the entire history of modern English, ordinary speakers, and even extraordinary ones — as is amply attributed — have used “their” as the epicene pronoun. Yet there seems to be a notion that 700 years’ worth of native speakers are using (specifically, _speaking_) their own language incorrectly. How does one come to this conclusion exactly?

    We can examine the situation more subtly. What we can say is that a convention has arisen (not known how; see previous paragraph) that using this construction is considered … inelegant, uneducated, unstylish, whatever, take your pick. We now have a different discussion, namely one of style and tone and register and so-called “correctness conditions,” emphasis on conditions. My very original point in this thread is that no condition was noted on the proscription of singular their; it was not noted, for example, that the use of singular their should be avoided _under some circumstances_ (nor of course were those conditions listed, nor why they were correct); it was not noted even why this usage is so despised by the author; it was not noted that even grammatical authorities have lively discussions about this issue and do not agree among themselves. Moreover, it was noted without any evidence whatsoever that “Technology has exploded the use of the singular their,” suggesting that this usage is in absolute terms more popular than it was in previous generations (as opposed to more visible due to the far greater exposure of vernacular English via technology, which seems — but I have no evidence — a far likelier point). Finally, the author even says, in so many words, that the advice is at significant odds with vernacular usage! She’s telling you right up front that she’s giving you advice that directly contradicts how people actually speak English! I find that odd.

    But what we really have here is the “shorts at a wedding” problem. “You wouldn’t you wear shorts to a wedding, would you?!?” Probably not. That doesn’t mean shorts are wrong in any sort of absolute sense; it merely means that there are correctness conditions for wearing shorts. And maybe you would wear shorts if the wedding were being held on a beach in Hawaii. IOW, the author is handing out fashion advice.

    >time how long it takes someone to yell “grammar nazi” at you.

    Wow, you hand out grammar advice when people aren’t asking for it? How does that fare for you? Based on what you’re saying (“time how long …”), doesn’t sound like it goes so good. Do people ever seem grateful for your efforts? Do you also hand out unsolicited fashion advice? How about unsolicited parenting advice?

  11. Melanie Blank

    Terrific post – thanks! Frankly, IMHO, I can easily view “he” as a neutral pronoun, from a grammatical point of view, without reading anything sexist into it at all, or implying such a bias.

    Writers in a local company I knew of, quite a while back, used to put a disclaimer to that effect at the beginning of each of their documents, and just stick to using the masculine singular pronoun throughout the text.

    In the same way, from wide study of Spanish and French (with a tiny smattering of Russian thrown in), I don’t think of objects as masculine or feminine just because they are grammatically masculine or feminine.

    1. Marcia Johnston

      Good point about gender in other languages, Melanie. It is amusing that in French, for example, tables are feminine, while in German girls are neuter. Sometimes, with language or anything else, you have to let go of logic and smile.

      1. Melanie Blank

        Thanks, Marcia. :)

        Gender is part of those languages, and you have to respect it (I think!). I’m suddenly reminded of something. A young lady opened a local French restaurant and named it “Le Bon Vie.” Gimme a break! To those of you who don’t know French, it should be “La Bonne Vie.” There was even an article in the local paper commenting on this error. The young owner said it didn’t matter. I disagree and refuse to go there – even if the food is terrific! To me, it shows a disrespect for the French language, and that irritates me. I know, some will say “Get a life.” To each his own…..

  12. Marcia Johnston

    This discussion has prompted me to reread the two essays at the beginning of the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage. If you’re intrigued by “the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate,” as Garner calls it, you’ll find these essays — “Making Peace in the Language Wars” and “The Ongoing Struggles of the Garlic-Hangers” — stimulating.

  13. Marcia Johnston

    Bryan Garner has just emailed me to say (and to grant permission to quote him as saying), “‘John got their coat’ is ghastly.” He adds, “I’ll write something in coming months.”

  14. Michael Hobren

    Marcia — Your April article was like a breath of fresh air, and a welcome departure from the usual posts from the “Planet Geekdom” that I often read here. (Sorry, Geeks!) This is good, essential information we can all use. Having worked in the technical-writing field for “too many year” now, I have come to notice that “newbies” are typcially good with picking up on new technologies — the nuts & bolts stuff. This is only natural I think, since so many of them were raised on a diet of Gameboys and Nintendos! But I’ve noted an inherent lack of solid writing skill — which, way back when I was in Journalism school — was THE essential “must-learn” skill. I have seen a lot of tech. text go out the door in pretty rough shape, grammatically speaking, even though the “inner workings” of the device or product itself may have been right on. I think writing skills DO develop with maturity and time. But I was glad to see your post cast a much-needed light on this first and foremost skill of our profession. Nice job!

    1. Marcia Johnston

      Michael,

      Your comment does my heart good. I like your closing reference to the “first and foremost skill of our profession.” Writing — that old-fashioned, hard-earned skill of putting words and sentences and paragraphs together effectively — often gets upstaged by the sexier topics of our day: content strategy, user experience, information architecture, content management, etc.

      I understand why technical communicators say “I’m not just a writer.” But I’m with Tom: I’d rather be writing. And I’d rather see writing restored to its rightful place, namely, the top of the list of important topics. Nothing’s sexier than the right word in the right ear.

  15. Luis

    I was wondering if you had seen the ads for the new Honda Civic. The campaign is called, “To Each Their Own.” I just saw it in a magazine as a two-page spread that annoyed the cr** out of me! Friends will say to not take it so seriously. Is marketing/advertising excused from proper grammar? Sorry, I just needed to vent. :) *Rant Over*

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