I feel I should explain this right away: my floor length velvet cape doesn’t have anything to do with pronouns—however, it is a perfect instance of a whirlwind romance, very similar to what happened with me and the singular “they.” A few months ago, I walked past the Broadway Antique Market and saw it in the window. I stared at it for a long moment without breathing, and when I went inside, I don’t know why I bothered to ask how much it was when I knew I was going to buy it (luckily, it was affordable). And while I could happily tell you more about this story and other Capes I Have Loved, let’s move on to pronouns because I’m really excited to talk about them, too (more about capes later).
Difficult as it is to believe now, when I was growing up (and for many years before that) it was considered—by some—to be acceptable for the pronoun “him” to represent everybody and for the noun “mankind” to mean “humankind.” Remembering this always make me think of a wonderful poem by Muriel Rukeyser called “Myth” that relates a conversation between Oedipus and the Sphinx. Oedipus restates the Sphinx’s famous question and his own answer to it—”Man”—explaining that “When you say Man…you include women / too. Everyone knows that.” The Sphinx’s chilling (for Oedipus) answer, “That’s what you think,” ends the poem.
This is one of my favorite poems, and the reason that I want to begin talking about pronouns with a poem is because one of my own poems is a part of my story of the singular “they.” And while you may not be familiar with the singular “they” by name, I feel there’s a good chance that you’ve used it conversationally.
Pronouns are wonderful. They stand in for nouns that we’ve already used, allowing us to avoid unnecessary repetition in writing and speech. But one of the challenges of English pronouns is that while we have a gender-neutral plural pronoun, we don’t have a gender-neutral singular one. This presents difficulty, and while using “they” and “them” isn’t the only solution that’s been discussed, it is has become the one that I prefer and that I feel is best for avoiding the restrictive gender binary of “he or she.”
Several relatively current articles show how this is an ongoing conversation. I first read Ben Zimmer’s “‘They,’ the Singular Pronoun, Gets Popular” in the Wall Street Journal and more recently, “Is it time we agreed on a gender-neutral singular pronoun?” by Gary Nunn in the Guardian. One of the things in the Nunn article that I found particularly interesting was the fact that offering a solution for this isn’t anything new: “In 1884, thon, hi, le, hiser and ip were variously suggested. Thon – a blend of that and one – was coined by Philadelphia lawyer Charles C Converse.” But Nunn also points out that this attempt had nothing to do with inclusive language but was simply motivated by “grammatical pedantry.”
You may have read about Sweden recently and how “hen,” singular and gender-neutral, has been added to the dictionary. But reaching this point took time, and at first, “hen” wasn’t winning many converts. This wasn’t because the need wasn’t there but simply because words don’t become words unless we’re willing to use them. That’s why I think that the singular “they,” increasingly idiomatic in conversation, will one day be what we’re saying without even thinking about it: I think that the language will take us there on its own.
And the fact that I didn’t always embrace the singular “they” makes for one of my favorite stories about how our thoughts about language do undergo sometimes drastic change. Based on only one conversation with a fellow writing tutor (thank you, Cynthia!), I went from merely considering it to both embracing and advocating for it.
I mentioned one of my poems earlier. In 2013, I wrote a short poem called “Novel.” It’s about the very long unfinished novel that lives in my apartment with me. After the poem was published, I realized that there was a singular “they” at the very end: “few questions answered, no end or resolution, / no one ever getting what they want.” I was briefly upset by this—though more by the idea that I hadn’t proofread very well. But now I’m so very glad that I didn’t notice it, that I didn’t attempt an edit. I so firmly believe that the singular “they” and the inclusion it represents is vital and important. Over time, we’ve moved away from “he” being the default pronoun—let’s keep moving forward.
Wow—I’ve talked about a lot of things here: capes, poems, pronouns. To return briefly to capes, next week, I’m going to write about my abiding love of capes, wraps, shawls, and ponchos. I’m also going to be out of town next weekend in the beautiful Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I’ll be sure to tell you all about that too! Here is a recommendation for the week to leave you with. Fall suddenly in love with something. Have a whirlwind romance with a poem, a fun or dramatic article of clothing, or the way a word is used—or all three! I wholeheartedly recommend all three.