A Somewhat Belated Take on Singular They

I know that I am late in speaking to an issue that has been addressed repeatedly and by many people who are in better position to do so than am I: singular they. Still, I do continue to teach and I am asked to be explicit and specific in promulgating specific standards of usage as I do so, so I do have reason to think about such things–in addition to the one that has prompted the present rumination.

In the interest of offering context, the issue of the singular they is that the pronoun in question, traditionally defined as exclusively the third-person plural, is increasingly being used as a singular pronoun–and that the use is being increasingly condoned by agencies and groups that have long been looked to as arbiters of “good style” and “the rules” by which language is supposed to work. As such, the phenomenon of the singular they has occasioned no small amount of condemnation–both by prescriptivists and those taught by them, who hold that the singular they is an abrogation of rules both ancient and sacred, and by descriptivists who look at the condemnations by prescriptivists as emblematic of the failures of such positions.

For the record, I tend to take more of a descriptivist position than a prescriptivist, owing in part to dimly remembered lessons taken during my abortive attempt to become a band director when I grew up (musical “rules” have grown up in much the same way that orthographic “rules” have, with many of the same problems) and in part to my own, more extensive (but maybe not more successful), study of historical Englishes. I confront often the fact that the language changes, and I try not to be one of the curmudgeons who have throughout history complained about cildas þissum dægum and yelled at them to afliehaþ gearde min (or words to that effect). And I recognize the fact that guidelines of “correctness” are used as rubrics to shut out people who might otherwise contribute well to broader discourses and the betterment of us all, functioning as perceived shorthand for intelligence and human worth. (Neither is truly the case.)

There are many who continue to rail against the construction for not better reason than that was the way they were taught English should be used–as if they were ever taught a “perfect” form that was not itself subject to decry by the grumpy elders of its own time, and, in many cases, as if they themselves deployed exemplary use of that form on anything resembling a consistent basis. (While I know that being wrong does not make identification of wrong impossible, I also know that it argues against sufficient knowledge to accurately assess what is and is not wrong, as a given standard would have it.) There are also many reasons to be okay with the singular they, as others have articulated and with which I tend to agree, maugre the heads of those who complain.

Which leads, at last, to the idea that has prompted me to write now. For in my current primary job (because, like many millennials, I have to have more than one to meet my bills), I work with protected health information. By ethical standards and by law, that information must be kept private–and if it must be discussed, it must be discussed with the minimum possible disclosure. To put it another way, the information I have about my organization’s clients must be kept as anonymous as can be–and that would call for the singular they.

Leaving aside the many other problems with a language that admits overtly of only two genders–and there are many, more than can be treated in the present piece–there is the issue that, in speaking of a client’s information with a masculine or feminine attached, there is some abrogation of that client’s privacy, however small. Given the right circumstances, a slipped “he” or “she” can reveal an identity, either affirming it or excluding it, and in neither case is the client’s privacy as protected as it ought to be.

The singular they gets around the problem, however. By eliding expressed gender–which is something that modern English tracks only loosely  in any event–the singular they eliminates one more item of identifying information from any discussion of clients whose information is to be protected. And while the argument could be made that the “correct” third-person singular personal pronoun–it–does the same, common usage practice continues to connect “it” to the inhuman. That is, calling a person “it” dehumanizes that person, which is not an appropriate course of action for them to take who purport to care for others. Additionally, in the case of such work as I do, working with populations whose members already suffer under a dehumanizing onus–because those who struggle with addiction are looked down upon by many–reference to clients as “it” would add to already-existing problems, however slightly, and those whom I serve need have no more burdens than they currently bear.

I know that I could refer to “the client” or to “clients.” I know that I could put all references into the plural. I know I could use s/he or “he or she” or some permutation thereof. But I also know that the language is what people use it to be, and that the singular they economizes words and accords more and more with prevailing popular use–as well as making parts of my work easier, allowing me to focus more on the central portions of the work to be done.

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