Guest Post: Andy Smarick on The Meaning of "They"

Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick

Today I'm sharing a guest post from Andy Smarick. Andy is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and senior policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; he has served as New Jersey Deputy Commissioner of Education and in various posts at both the White House and the United States Department of Education. Andy and I approach education from different sides of the political spectrum, and we have not let that interfere with either collaborating or learning from each other. Today, he shares some reflections on his own personal evolution on a topic that moves both of us: words.

If you’ve read any of my writing, you probably know that I love words. When the SAT decided to get rid of “arcane” and “obscure” language a few years back, I fretted and argued that such words help us see the world more clearly. For some time now, I’ve used the hashtag “#vocab” to curate a Twitter list of interesting words I’ve come across (“phlogistic,” “divagate,” “epigone,” “estoppel,” “fissiparous”).

I’ve found that one of the best intellectual playgrounds for logophiles is the Twitter feed of the Merriam-Webster (MW) dictionary. Those who run it send out insightful ideas about language and grammar. They are also witty and fun—on Memorial Day they caused a mini-riot on Twitter by declaring the hot dog a sandwich.

One of MW’s recent tweets used “they” as a singular pronoun. (Generally, “he” and “she” are used as singular pronouns, and “they” is used as a plural pronoun.) For some time they-as-singular was considered a common grammatical error, like the subject/object issue with “I” and “me.” But there has been a movement to officially recognize “they” as a singular pronoun.

For those who don’t obsess about words, this issue probably seems painfully precious. But among writers, editors, and others who love language, this is a serious debate. In January, the American Dialect Society took it on, naming the “singular they” the word of the year. The Washington Post explained that decision and highlighted the controversy—it noted that “grammar nerds” and “old-fashioned grammarians” would be disappointed. The Wall Street Journal also wrote about this debate.

I’ve traditionally come down on the side of only using “they” as a plural pronoun. I think there are instances when the reader can be confused about which noun in a sentence “they” refers to if we allow “they” to be both plural and singular. For the most part, I think we should aspire to precision in language so the writer’s meaning is as clear as possible. (This is why, for example, I use the “Oxford comma,” unless I’m limited to 140 characters). So when a sentence’s reference is to a single person but the gender is unknown, I typically use “s/he” instead of “they.”

Some, however, are of another mind. Others would argue, first, that English doesn’t have (but needs) a recognized gender-neutral singular pronoun; and second, that using “they” as a singular pronoun is already a somewhat common practice.

With all of this in mind, after Merriam-Webster used the “singular they” in a tweet, I jokingly tweeted back “I won't be baited into a pronoun agreement fight I won't be baited into a pronoun agreement fight I won't be bait...”

This was my silly way of acknowledging the debate on the subject. The clever dictionary responded cheerfully, noting that its use of the singular-they was intentional and that MW doesn’t make new rules, it describes them (touché!). In our quick back-and-forth, I tried to poke fun at myself and other plural-they-only types by feigning outrage. I called this change in usage an “affront” and claimed that strict grammar rules are the defining characteristic of humans (both laughable claims). To underscore my ironic intent, I ended with the over-the-top and highly ungrammatical, “We. Must. Stand. Firm.”

Based on what followed, the first thing to note is that I did a dreadful job of telegraphing that my position was lighthearted ribbing. I think MW understood, because its response included a smiley face. But before long The Telegraph (of the United Kingdom!) picked it up and called the ensuing online discussion a “Twitter row.” The Baltimore Sun’s language writer also blogged about the Twitter “agitation” that resulted and took to task (rightly) the hidebound nature of my tweet’s implying language can’t change.

Much of the ensuing discussion was fascinating. Some people want to keep “they” plural. Others disagreed. Several astutely noted that Chaucer, Shakespeare, and other paragons of English writing used the “singular they.” Others argued that language evolves naturally, so we should embrace this change because it represents the wisdom of crowds.

Several individuals argued strongly that “they” must be recognized as the correct singular pronoun because, unlike “he” and “she,” “they” is gender-neutral. I’ve agreed that “they” solves the gender-neutrality issue but I worry it still has the plural-singular problem. For these reasons, I’ve wondered if “xe,” “ze,” or some other recently created pronoun would emerge as the consensus choice, since these solve both issues.

I learned some important facts from the dialogue. I thanked Merriam-Webster for continuing to prod discussions about words — the 80 “likes” on this tweet suggest others enjoy language debates, too.

But others did not like the discussion. They had a very, very different take on the meaning of “they.”

Some believe that to defend “they” as a solely plural pronoun is to fail to recognize the full gender spectrum and is (or comes across as) anti-transgender. In their eyes, the “‘they’ shouldn’t be singular” argument is a way to deny individuals the ability to define themselves. That issue is obviously involved in the current and heated debate about the North Carolina bathroom legislation

To be clear, I had absolutely no intention of weighing in on those issues. My intent was to engage in a centuries-old debate about the plural-singular nature of a word. But others see that debate as part of the much broader subject of marginalization. As a result, some assumed I was making an intolerant political or social statement. Those comments stung.

So in the spirit of humility, after getting this feedback, I researched the topic and talked to a number of colleagues about the way the “singular they” has evolved, how it’s now being used, and why more organizations are adopting it. I’ve learned a great deal, and I’m much more aware. For example, I better understand and appreciate why those for whom the “singular they” is already an integral part of an identity-sensitive lexicon interpreted my response as a provocation.

Though I didn’t mean to wade into such a sensitive issue, in some eyes, I did. It’s a very good reminder to those of us who write: Words have enormous meaning, always manifest but often latent as well. And those meanings can vary dramatically from one person or group to the next.

As someone who trades in words, that’s a reminder I’ll take with me.