It’s bad enough that McWhorter has a point when it comes to the way language develops going forward.
It’s a principle in linguistics that things that settle in for good tend to start with young people, and the new “they” is used most by people under 35. (It has a mixed reception among people between 35 and 55 and is often outright dismissed by people past 55, according to a 2019 survey.)
Groovy. Of course, I fall into the outright dismissal cohort, but puts me at a disadvantage. I am a dinosaur and have no say as to how words and grammar will change over the next 47 second. That said, I reject Columbia linguistics prof John McWhorter’s foundational assumption that the singular “they” is here to stay, thus giving rise to the need to further bastardize the language to compensate for the damage it imposes on clarity. You remember clarity, the point of language as mechanism of communication?
Why, you ask, would McWhorter take it as a given that the singular “they” is not only sufficiently accepted but virtuous, having been rammed down woke throats by “gender non-conforming” activists?
Poor little “they” has had it rough over the years. For ages, we have been taught that it is an error to use “they” in the singular — “A person can’t help their birth” — because there is supposedly something inherently and ineradicably plural about “they.” Never mind that even Chaucer used “they” in the singular and that the example sentence I just used is from Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.”
Chaucer died in 1400. Even with the bolstering of William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), two writers over the past 600+ years does not make an overwhelming argument. What it means is thousands of writers of equal or greater repute rejected this use, and these are two outliers, if not writers in desperate need of better editors. But wait, there’s more!
Thankfully, this pox on singular “they” has started to ease up over the past 20 years or so. The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster have declared it acceptable, and in 2015, the Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh asked, “Allowing ‘they’ for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those ‘he or she’ situations?”
Dictionaries, like linguistics profs, love to be on the cutting edge of new words and usages, or else there is no reason to buy the new dictionary. As for Bill Walsh, he should have focused his attention on his football team, which had its own word issues. And yet, there is still more!
As peculiar as many find the new “they,” it is hardly unknown among the world’s languages to use the same pronoun for “he,” “she” and “they.” In Berik, a language of Papua New Guinea, there is a pronoun for “I,” a pronoun for “we” and one pronoun for both singular and plural “you” — just as in English — and one pronoun for “he,” “she” and “they.” The new “they” actually brings English quite close to being like Berik, which some might think is kind of cool.
Who among us doesn’t wake up every morning and ask, what would I say today if I spoke Berik? And yet, upon this foundation, McWhorter concludes that the deed is done.
Regardless, I suspect that the new “they” is with us to stay and not just because it was chosen as a word of the year by the American Dialect Society in 2015.
But what about clarity, us olds ask?
My proposal to treat “they” as a singular subject when conjugating the verb would be similarly handy and just plain right. I also think that it would be easy to master because using “s” at the end of the verb when referring to individuals is so deeply ingrained in the Anglophone mind.
In other words, when “they” refers to the plural, we would say “they want.” But when “they” refers to the singular, whether gender non-conforming at any given moment or grandma, who is well aware of her gender and always has been, we would they “they wants,” much like “he wants” or “she wants,” except with “they” since it’s unhip to use he or she pronouns.
“They wants” may feel a little odd at first or like one is doing some kind of imitation. But we can assume that “you was” felt somewhat nonstandard at first, and people got used to it. I especially like that using “s” with the new “they” would keep it from being a grammatical irregularity in terms of verbal marking.
Except the use of “you was,” a one-off example from John Adams in 1800, never felt nonstandard to the rest of Americans since they never used it. And still don’t. And have neither need nor want to use it, unless they happen to be a linguistics prof at Columbia.
But McWhorter, a man capable of great clarity except when it comes to his chosen academic discipline, argues that given that the plural “they” will be the normal usage in order to show respect to the array of “gender non-conforming,” whose very existence would be erased if the rest of us failed to use the words they demand, his modest proposal closes the gap of how the singular “they” should work with non-conforming verbs so we have some clue what the hell people are saying.
In other words, the new “they” would be both progressive and tidy. My case rests.
Well then, has the jury reached a verdict?