Simanaitis Says

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I SEEM TO HAVE sidestepped our English language’s non-gender hassle. Indeed, I have LBGT family and friends, though assigning any of them “he/she” or “his/her” never seems to be a problem. I mean, what’s the buzz? We’re all human.

Some people, however, seemingly intent on telling others what to do, quibble about phrases such as “Mary has their thesis defense tomorrow.” These curmudgeons argue that “they” and “their” are for plural usage only.

I’ve researched this a bit, and came upon the Grammarphobia’s “Fifty Shades of ‘They.’ ” By the way, Grammarphobia is composed by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, writers and editors with five books about our English language to their credit. (Of course, no need here for “her and his” credit). 

Stewart and Pat. Photo by Dan Jacob from Grammarphobia.

Here are tidbits gleaned from their most cogent article.

The Modern Grammarian View.  “Although some people object to the usage,” Pat and Stewart write, “the most respected modern grammarians now say this use of ‘they’ with indefinite pronouns—‘everybody,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘anyone,’ and so on—is grammatically correct.” 

What’s more, their example “Nobody eats kale because they like it” doesn’t even slow me down. I’d much prefer this to the overly legalistic “because he or she likes it.” 

There’s also the easy workaround: “People don’t eat kale because they like it.” However, this smacks of a private joke Wife Dottie and I used to say to each other: “I really don’t deserve you.”

Pat and Stewart say, “The truth is that English has no better alternative—no generic, unisex singular pronoun. Nothing has ever filled the bill as satisfactorily as ‘they,’ which no doubt explains its long and distinguished history.” 

A Rich Heritage. Grammarphobia observes, “For some 700 years, almost as long as ‘they’ has been part of English, people have used it this way—even great writers. You can find it in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Byron, Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens, and too many others to mention.”

“The usage,” Pat and Stewart continue, “was considered normal until 18th-century grammarians decided that the use of ‘they,’ a plural, was wrong with a technically singular antecedent. Their solution was to use the singular ‘he’ instead. They apparently felt it was better to be illogical with gender than with number.”

“But,” Pat and Stewart say, “there was never any reason to avoid ‘they’ in the first place. Those 18th-century fusspots should have left well enough alone.”

The Singular Possessive Pronoun. I confess that my own example, “Mary has their thesis defense tomorrow,” probes this modern usage a bit more. Indeed, English has a singular possessive pronoun: “one’s,” as in “One should always mind one’s own business.”

True, it’s often paired with this singular third-person pronoun “one.” However, I see nothing odd in “Mary has one’s thesis defense tomorrow.” 

In any event, I sure hope Mary gets through that thesis defense successfully. And I heartedly recommend one’s reading Grammarphobia’s “Fifty Shades of ‘They.’ ”ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022  


  1. Bill Rabel
    July 17, 2022

    “Mary get’s” in the last paragraph? Ouch!

  2. sabresoftware
    July 18, 2022

    Reminds me of George Carlin’s take on de-gendering a title like Chairman. If the person in that role is female sometimes it is titled Chairwoman. Others prefer Chairperson. As George pointed out that that is still sexist as it refers to a son, and so it should be Chair Per Child (chairperchild).

    In reality I still see Chairman as the proper word, as it is a position and not a person, per se. Even those who still prefer Chairwoman, it could be argued that man is still in there as woMAN.

    I personally find that Chairwoman or Chairperson, or even Chair diminishes the individual by highlighting that they aren’t a man. Who cares. The Chairman is the position of the individual in charge, regardless of gender (or even age for that matter).

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This entry was posted on July 17, 2022 by in I Usta be an Editor Y'Know.
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