As they grow up, native speakers of any language learn its rules, its syntax, its way of arranging words into comprehensible patterns. These syntactical arrangements are very difficult to change. Yet a frontal attack on one of these rules is now gaining some traction.
This attack builds on an older issue that led increasingly to using the pronoun “they” as expressing singular number despite its long history as a plural. Listen to children learning the language and chances are you will hear them say “They are … ” rather than “They is …”
They will have internalized the syntactical rule grammarians call subject/verb agreement in number. A plural subject takes a plural verb form.
As firm as this plural quality of “they” is, it ran into a problem involving another one of the basic syntactical rules, namely, that a pronoun should also agree with its noun antecedent. That rule introduced grammatical gender into the situation; English nouns do not express gender while singular English pronouns — he, she, it — do.
In sentences in which the non-gender specific singular noun was to be replaced by a gender specific singular pronoun, the old sexist rule was to insist on the singular “he” on the assumption that in a male dominated world that would be the appropriate choice. The feminist movement some 50 years ago rejected that notion by recommending that “he or she” or even “she” alone would be preferable.
That idea didn’t take, nor did an attempt to invent a new gender free singular English pronoun. Instead, many folks figuratively threw up their hands and opted for the gender neutral but plural “they” in violation of the number agreement rule.
Now that issue has addressed a different complaint. Rather than avoiding sexist or awkward phrasing, the new argument is that all personal pronouns should simply be gender neutral, as “they” already is. Just ignore grammatical number so as to erase grammatically based gender. Do this by employing “they” as the all-purpose, number- and gender-free pronoun.
Proponents of this position argue that gender identification places individuals into socially constructed boxes that create behavioral expectations. Males are expected to behave one way, females another. That idea becomes more complicated when dealing with transgender individuals whose inner does not match their outward gender. Why should such a person have to deal with gender expectations that are foreign to their internal sense of themselves?
To prevent English from imposing gender expectations, the argument is for using “they” in all circumstances, even when the antecedent is clearly both singular and male. A reader could respond to this column by saying, “Did you read the latest rant by Steve? They have really lost it this time.”
That seems to be an extreme example to make the point that we should do all we can to avoid gender specific pronouns. In fact, it is reliably reported that Uber now instructs riders this way: “Juan is almost here. Meet them outside.” I hear that and wonder if Juan has anonymous companions or perhaps suffers from multiple personalities of indeterminate gender.
Maybe this push will gain traction, but I think not. Our language is profoundly conservative and does not easily accept politically driven changes. In a couple of instances, such as using “Ms” to replace the marital specific “Mrs./Miss” titles the change largely took hold as did changing suffixes from “man” to “person” as in “chairperson.”
But in neither of those cases did the change involve a head-on crash into basic syntactical facts such as singular vs. plural. So, until children learning English are heard to be saying, “They is … ” I don’t see this attempt being successful.