Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Last week, the AP Style Guide announced that it would advise using "they" for an individual if the person did not want to be identified as "he" or "she." In my blog, I explored the reasons we need that singular “they,” and I argued that we should just use “they” to refer to everybody, for reasons of equity and social justice. Why should someone be pointed out as different for not wanting to be labeled as “he” or “she”? Let’s all be “they”
"When Alex walks down the street, they can turn heads."
"Tell your brother to pick up their toys."
I want to follow up this week with a couple of issues I didn’t have space for last week.
Sure. Why not? Let's go all the way.
@icowrich raised the question on Twitter in response to my post:
OK, OK, this one might sound weird, too. If you’ve been trained to Standard English dialects, you’ve been taught subject-verb agreement. Singular nouns and pronouns take singular verbs; plural nouns and pronouns take plural verbs. So does singular “they,” referring to Alex or Amy, go with singular “is” and “was”? or with traditional plural “are” and “were”?
It’s an interesting issue, at least to @icowrich and me, worth exploring a little bit.
But I don’t want to bore you with a long grammar lesson or explanation of prescriptive rules versus descriptive rules or even the hegemonic power of Standard English. It’s tempting because I love all those topics, but I won’t do it to you. Not this time anyway.
Instead, let me just make some comparisons.
Mixing singular and plural is pretty common in most people’s speech and even writing:
“The analysis of all the results from five experiments support that claim.”
And one common expression mixing singular and plural even sounds a lot like “They is” (and is often pronounced that way):
“There’s two kinds of people in this world.”
“There’s lots of reasons we shouldn’t go to that party.”
So maybe it won’t sound so weird after all:
“Sam volunteers at the homeless shelter. They’s someone I really admire.”
Some varieties of English already match plural “they” with a singular verb:
“they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself” (Kanye West line in New Slaves)
“They is treatin’ us good.” (Dave Chappelle Terrorists on the Plane routine)
"They wasn't ready." (Bri BGC17 commenting on Oxygen Bad Girls Club experience)
So why not singular “they” with a singular verb?
“They wasn’t going to the party alone.”
Using singular verbs when we’re using “they” to refer to one person might not be so weird after all.
We have the same issue in some ways with singular “you.” Standard English varieties tend to use a plural verb even with singular “you.” So “you are a fine person,” not “you is a fine person.”
Except lots of varieties and lots of speakers do use “you is.”
Here’s a powerful one from Kathryn Stockett’s novel and then film of The Help
"You is smart, you is kind, you is important."
And an old classic, released in 1944 by Louis Jordan, “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?”
(or maybe you'd recognize instead Chance the Rapper's echoing line in All Night "is you is or is you ain't got gas money")
According to my resident language historian, when “you” first began to be used as the singular more commonly than “thou,” many people commonly used singular verbs, “you was” and “you is.” Language authorities, snobs, and prescribers on the rise at around the same time labeled “you is” as wrong. But even the authority and dictionary writer Noah Webster defended the use of singular verbs with singular “you.” It makes sense.
Using singular verbs with singular "they" makes sense to me. But will that happen? Language change doesn’t always make sense in a conventional predictable way. If it did, we wouldn’t use “himself”:
My story, myself
Your story, yourself
Her story, herself
His story, hisself—oh no, wait, for some reason standard varieties prescribe “himself.” That doesn't follow the pattern
And we would use “amn’t”:
He is, isn’t he?
You are, aren’t you?
I am, amn’t I? –oh no, wait, standard varieties prescribe “aren’t I” and even proscribe "ain't I," which is closer to "amn't" in some ways. It's not predictable.
So language doesn’t always follow conventionally logical paths—either what we commonly say or what standard varieties prescribe. Language change isn't predictable.
If we did all start using “they” as the sole singular pronoun for people—no “he” or “she”—would we start using singular verbs, too? Maybe some would and some wouldn’t, depending on the complexities of who they are and where they are. I suspect that would be true for using "they" as the sole singular, too.
My guess is that it would vary by genre as well as by dialect, by the kind of writing and speaking going on. More formal and written genres tend to be more conservative, so the usual plural verb with “they” might stick around a long time in school themes and academic papers, in business writing and traditional journalism. But more informal spoken genres might change more quickly, maybe starting with varieties that already use plural “they is” or singular “you is.”
On the other hand, the push for gender-neutral pronouns has perhaps been strongest on college campuses and in civil rights organizations. Academics and feminists were first to push against using “he” as if it referred to everyone. So maybe using the singular “they” for everyone will spread as an issue of diversity and inclusion. And maybe using the singular verb to go along with it would come next.
If we did use singular verbs with singular “they,” it would help with ambiguity. Even though context usually makes most potentially ambiguous sentences clear, the singular verb might help you know which one I meant when I wrote,
“Alex and the dancers are all going to the party tonight, but they is going to be late.”
But language change isn’t predictable. Language changes slowly. It changes more quickly in some genres than others, in speech than in writing. And it changes when people use it differently, not when rulebooks prescribe it differently--probably not even when I declare it should be so.
So should we follow singular “they” with a singular verb? I'd vote for it. There’s precedent for both “they are” and “they is” in people's usage. There's conservative power behind the standard variety's plural "they are," but if the AP Style Guide can change to allowing singular "they," even conservators of tradition can adapt to changing times. Which one wins out depends in part on which one catches on.
I like the consistency of the singular pronoun bringing along its singular verb. Let’s go all the way with equity and inclusion. So sure, @icowrich, let's get that going.
We might start getting used to it by using it in spoken but important genres--maybe in a catchy and powerful message that would spread. So think about someone who matters to you and repeat after me:
They is smart.
They is kind.
They is important.
After all, even weirder verb combinations have gone viral in memes. If a cat can has cheezburger, a singular they can has one, too.
Edited: Chatting with my linguist friends Anne, Peter, and Jim gave me a new way to talk about this topic. The form of the verb "are" ("They are") might be plural, but in the context of a singular "they" the verb would have singular meaning, too. We do that with "you." You are a good friend, Sue. The "are" is singular just as the "you" is. So if we do start using "they" as the sole singular pronoun, we wouldn't have to change the form of the verb to make it singular. It would already be heard as singular.
We are creative and flexible in using language. What a wonderful thing!
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