On the Singular 'They' and Slippery Slopes

Language change is disruptive, disorienting and exciting — don't fear the singular "they."


English has been calling out for a gender-neutral pronoun for more than a century, with many failed attempts at invented words and portmanteaus. Singular "they" — once the scourge of schoolhouse grammarians — has now emerged to become the pronoun of choice for many outside the so-called gender binary.


From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter, and you know, these days, some of you probably know I'm writing pieces for The New York Times, and in The New York Times, not long ago, I wrote a piece about the new, new usage of “they.” And as you might imagine, I like it. Well, I've gotten a lot of very interesting feedback about my take on that. I wouldn't say hate mail, just mail from people very urgently telling me that I'm probably making a mistake, that I don't understand the full import of the call to use “they” in this new, new way. I'll let you know soon what I mean by “new, new.” I thought I would dedicate this episode to a response to people who just can't get with the new, new “they.” And it's not because they don't understand that language changes, but they see this as societally different from the way language generally changes. Folks, I get you, but let's talk about it. Let's talk about “they.”

It's a word that's been uniquely subject to transformation. There's always something going on with “they” in English, it seems. Way back in Old English, the word for “they,” for one thing, was not what you'd expect. You'd think that would be something like thag or something. No, it wasn't. The word for “they” was HEE-uh, of all things. Hee-uh. And so, you just had to make do with that. And I say “make do” because HEE-uh is “they.” “He” is hē and “she” is hēo. So all of those are a little ominously similar. Hē, hēo, HEE-uh is “he,” “she,” “they” in the earliest English that we know. And if you talked about “to them,” like, you know, “give them the log,” “give the log to them,” then it was hem, just as it was in the singular. And so hem, “to him,” hem, “to them.” So there was a lot of this similarity. And it got really bad because, as you might imagine, hē and hēo, “he” and “she.” There were people who would say, just, hē for “she,” but then you've got hē and hē, meaning both “he” and “she” — hardly unheard of in languages, but this was a language where it hadn't been that way before. And of course, these things are different from dialect to dialect.

So people would have known something is falling together. And then, HEE-uh. Well, after a while, you say that over and over and you might get hē, hē, hē. That was falling to sound like “he” and “she” too. This falling together would have felt funny to some people. And even if they weren't thinking of it consciously, it's the sort of thing where if English is the language that you're speaking — and English used to be a certain way — you might want to fix that. So you've got this HEE-uh that's just become hē and you've got the same word for “he,” “she,” and “they.” There are languages that do just fine like that, but English hadn't been one of them. 

Now, the old story about what happened to “they” in this situation is that English grabbed a word from Old Norse. The idea is that starting in 787 C.E. — I still think of it as A.D., but I'm told I have to say C.E. these days — the Vikings come, Scandinavian Vikings. They don't speak English, they speak Norse, and it's mostly men. They marry English speaking women. And next thing you know, there's this entire boatload of Norse words that come into English, including, you know, “get,” “happy,” “neck,” “skirt.” All of these are Old Norse words. They weren't originally in English. Well, it's supposed to be that something else came from Norse, and that is “they/their/them,” because in Old Norse, the word for “they” wasn't this HEE-uh thing. (Well, wrong voice for Old English.) HEE-uh — wasn't that. In Old Norse, It was þeir. Þeir. Not “they,” but þeir. Whole lot more like what we're used to than this HEE-uh thing. So it used to be thought (by many it still is thought) that English borrowed these pronouns from Old Norse. 

Now, I'm getting to something here. I'm not going into the weeds. I'm getting to this for a reason. It turns out that if you really look at that situation closely, and not many people had until relatively recently, the truth is that English didn't go grabbing pronouns from some other language. English used itself for this “they.” Old English had goofy gender, just like so many of the languages that you learn from English and are frustrated by. You had masculine, feminine and neuter. And for the most part, you just had to know. And then there was plural, which was all three. But this meant that you had four “thes.” “The” was different if you were in the singular, masculine, feminine, neuter. Then there was a plural “the.” That word was tha. And if you really look at how things appear in the documents and when and in what form, it's pretty clear that “they” came from this word for “the” that you use with a bunch of things. So “the ducks,” you know, “the Atari sets” or something like that. That “the” became “they.” 

So what happened is that the language, in a sense, needed or at least wanted a separate word for “they” and it lost it. And so, people were looking for some other one, and they went somewhere else in the language and they grabbed a word that roughly meant “the.” Or if you stretched it, it kind of meant “these” and “those.” This is a theory that is put forth most cogently (for those of you who are interested in these things and wondering where I'm getting it) by Marcelle Cole. But it is gaining increasing influence. I very much support it. And this is why I'm harping on it: Many people have written me that we need to create, for example, a gender neutral pronoun. So it can't be “he,” can't be “she,” shouldn't be “they.” We need to have something else. And so, there are  popular alternatives such as “ze.” And the truth is, people have been trying to create these for a very, very long time. There was a certain efflorescence in the 70s, one suggestion was, was “heesh.” That’s “he” and “she” put together.

It would be very interesting, but you know, the truth is pronouns are seeded so deeply in our cognition. We use them so much. They label something as elemental as the other people in our lives and their relationship to our us and our us-ness. It's really hard to borrow pronouns from another language or to just create a new one. How do you slide that in? How do you start all over again? Of course, there may be people or even subgroups who are particularly interested in using this new word, and they will put themselves to doing it. But especially in a large society, how do you create new pronouns? In terms of how languages affect each other, they affect each other all the time, but they don't usually share pronouns. That's kind of like people sharing the same toothbrush. And so, in a way, what really happened in Old English — which was not grabbing something from Old Norse but almost certainly grabbing something from Old English itself — it means that if we're going to solve our problems with pronouns no longer seeming to correspond to the way a critical mass of people see themselves in a modern society, probably we need to recruit something that's already in the language rather than trying to create something brand new.

Now, what I don't want to do here is repeat the show that I did on “they” before. I did an episode of Lexicon Valley, good while back now, 2018. It was called “The Rise of ‘They.’” I know that not many of you have listened to all — this is the 138th episode of Lexicon Valley that I've done, goodness gracious. Some of you have, and I am immensely flattered by your obsessiveness because you're like me, you're a completist. I listen to every episode of things, too. Most people haven't, and I can imagine most people weren't listening to this in 2018. But I did do it. And very quick summary is that the first “they” problem that people think of is what used to be called good old, singular “they.” And so, tell each student that they can hand their paper in when they want to. And that leaves you to not have to specify whether it is a boy or a girl or anything else. And you just have this generic reference. You're not being specific. And so, “a person can't help their birth,” that sort of thing. That was from Vanity Fair. And it's a hint that singular “they” isn't something that happened when apparently everything fell apart after the 60s, when people started using marijuana more openly or something. I don't know what's supposed to have happened recently that means that language just falls apart. But if Thackeray was already saying a person can't help their birth, you know that there's probably something about just the nature of English, where if you're looking for some sort of generic gender neutral pronoun, well, you take it from the resources of the language itself, and it is “they” for us. And it actually goes back to the 13 and 1400s. You've got it in Shakespeare. You've got it in Middle English, it doesn't even sound quite like English. Only in the 1800s, did certain, always self-appointed, grammarians decide that they didn't like singular “they” because “they” is plural. They're asserting this like it's something that’s undeniable and basic and unitary as the nature of protons and neutrons or something: “They” is plural.Well, you know, good for you. They said that. But in the meantime, people have kept on using singular “they.”

But now there's what I sometimes call the new, new “they.” And this is the one that I wrote the Times piece about, and that seems to be eliciting some emotional reactions. And again, not from people who don't like language change, but from people who think that this time it's different. And so, I refer to, “Roberta wants their hair washed now. They're waiting downstairs.” And this doesn't mean that Roberta is waiting for some unspecified people who aren't her to have their hair washed. But the “they” is Roberta. Roberta wants their hair washed. Now they're waiting downstairs. Roberta refers to themselves as “they.” Or you might say, Roberta refers to themself. I suspect that's the way it's going to go. Roberta refers to themself as “they.”

So, it's that new “they” that seems to really bother some people. And yeah, this is new. I didn't encounter it until not a few years ago, but a few more than a few. And you have to wrap your head around it if you didn't grow up with it. I should say that the kids are using it quite fluently, which shows that it's hardly incompatible with human cognition, but nevertheless this “they” is very, very different and it's ever more common. So sunny, non-prescriptive linguist like me says, “Well, this is wonderful. This is interesting. Things like this have happened in the past. Language always changes.” And then you get a whole bunch of mail saying, you know, “Professor McWhorter, I like blah, blah, blah, but on this one, I think that you're missing a larger context.” Interesting. Very interesting. And it's clear that the people who are writing this are very and genuinely upset. 

Oh, wait. Yeah. You're right, in terms of the pacing of a Lexicon Valley episode, it's time for a little break, not for a commercial, but for some sort of song. I have it as Roberta wants their hair. I don't know why, but whenever I think of the new, new “they” I think of Roberta. And it has nothing to do with any Roberta I know. Roberta D'Alessandro, if you're listening to this, it's not you. I've just got this generic new “they” person and her name is Roberta. Well, you know, there is a musical called Roberta, and it's from 1933. The words are by Jerome Kern and the lyrics are by Otto Harbach. Many of you know Roberta as a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. And you might think that that was just written for them, but no, that was a Broadway property that was fashioned into a film for that. That's why they're kind of subsidiary in the film. But it was a show. And in any case, what didn't make it into the film, but what is in the lovely show score is this madrigal.  It's this choral piece. I've always liked this almost more than anything else in it, even though it's got a lot of songs in it that are famous if you like the American Songbook. This is the madrigal from Roberta. This is a newish recording of it in its original arrangement. Just listen to these beautiful voices doing this beautiful, plummy harmony together. This is the “Madrigal,” sometimes known as “Alpha Beta Pie.”

Madrigal: Alpha Beta Pie

Is this time really different? Well, one thing that you might insert here is that having the same word in the second person for the singular and the plural, that felt weird to people when it started. That was something that was going on in the middle of the last millennium. And the idea that you say “you” to one person as opposed to thou — that sounds so antique to us now. But that's how English originally was. In Old English, that word was thou. Thou. That was normal, as it is in languages in general if you think about it. What's a language you know where the word for “you” is the same in the singular and the plural? Note that you have to unlearn that. Now, some of you who speak Hindi might be thinking that it's that way with your language. And really, Hindi and English are the exceptions that prove the rule. Normal languages have a separate word for singular “you” as opposed to plural “you.” And so, there were people who didn't like “you” being extended to the singular in this way at first because it felt strange. And this is something that's important: A lot of people are telling me that they don't like the new, new “they” because it's being imposed, that it isn't a natural development among the population. Instead, certain people are saying that it has to be that way.

But you know, although the details are unclear, this use of “you” in the singular was something that came from on high. That is something that happened in the standard. Thou persisted and has persisted in very casual usage in a great many Englishs that are not prestigious in England, for example. A good example actually is if you read Lady Chatterley's Lover — I get the feeling that ever fewer people are actually reading it. But my mother, you know, as a young woman reading those sorts of five-foot bookshelf kinds of books (although that book was not one of them) had back in about 1960, before she married and had children and also had a whole career. But when she was a young woman and she had this copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was a very nice addition. So I happened to read it kind of early because this book made you want to read it, and it's also a little bit dirty. And so, you find these things. And at one point, the groundskeeper says to Lady Chatterley, he says “'Tha mun come to the cottage one time.” Okay, so, “tha mun.” “Tha mun.” What the hell does that mean? It's thou must — “tha mun.” He speaks this Nottinghamshire dialect, and so, thou must come to the cottage one time. He wasn't trying to sound like he was in some silly play using archaic English. That thou was part of the local dialect. But no, in English, you know, the “you” ends up coming from the plural. And there were people who resisted it, including Quakers. Quakers continued using thou in the singular. They found it more humble than this idea that everybody would be exalted with this plural “you.” I went to a Quaker school as a kid, and I remember some of the teachers were using thou, thy, and thee. “Don't forget to put thy name on thy paper,” I remember that said to me. So, these things can be imposed, that's happened in the past.

But more to the point, many people find the new, new “they” to challenge ready online understanding. Yes, that's true, especially if you're not used to it. You can hear people using it that way and they're talking about “they.” And you're wondering, well, who? What two people, what three people? Or maybe you're waiting for it to be the generic, old fashioned, singular “they.” But that doesn't quite make sense in the context, and then you have to wrap your head around the idea that one person who you all know is being referred to as “they” instead of “he” or “she.” And people are sending me whole paragraphs where you have to work to figure out what “they” is. And I can understand that frustration. Context can take care of so much, though, as we know with “you.” Really think about how odd it is, compared to any other language you know, that we say “you” to one person and “you” to two or three, and admit to yourself that sometimes it's even a little confusing. I sometimes will say “you” and realize that in my language, I can't specify that I'm talking to one person rather than both of them, such as, for example, my two daughters. And you know, you get by because that doesn't happen enough to matter. And my horse sense is that it wouldn't happen enough to matter with the new, new “they” once we got used to it.

But, you know, maybe there is a transitional strategy, or maybe there is something practical that we can do to alleviate that feeling among people. And this is my proposal, and maybe it's been proposed elsewhere, but if it has been, I am definitely putting my hat into the ring for it. Maybe, in writing, the new, new “they” should be capitalized. This kind of capitalization can be quite arbitrary, for example, in the way we capitalize “I.” That's not necessary. If we didn't capitalize the pronoun “I,” and it was just lowercase, what else would we think it was? And yet we're used to that. Why don't we capitalize “they” when it refers to one person? In writing, you can't capitalize in speech. But if we're going to use it in writing (and we most certainly will, we must), then maybe we could capitalize “they” when it refers to one person. And here, we wouldn't be doing anything new because this is something that happens in various languages written in Roman. So in German, for example, you almost might wonder how they deal with the fact that sie, (that's s. i. e., sie) can mean “she.” It can mean “they.” And it's the formal way of saying “you.” Talk about how weird these things can get. Complain about how new, new “they” is different and it's confusing you, but think about German, and Germans seem to get along just fine. But sie is either “she,” “they,” or “you,” as in “sir” or “madam.” The way that you handle that in writing is that the formal sie is capitalized, so that helps a little bit.

Or another example is in Italian. Italian has lei. Lei is “she.” Then it can also mean formal “you.” Think about how odd that is. You know, those of you who've taken Italian, you're so used to it. But think about how weird that actually is. This is just the way pronouns tend to be. They don't accept being put in little cages, but if lei means “she” and then also means “sir” or “madam, you,” well, then the way that they handle it is that when it's the formal “you,” then it's capitalized. So you have a capital L. I wonder if we could use a capital T with “they.” Not to indicate formality, but to indicate this new usage of “they.” So it would be a singular usage. That's just my proposal. I think that might be something useful to consider, and I'm putting it out here now.

Let's get to what many people would think of as the meat of this issue. Many people are saying that they don't like this new, new “they” because a minority of people are insisting on being addressed in a certain way that everybody else finds quite counterintuitive. And the sociological tenor of society is such that if you don't do it, in many cases, you'll be given a very hard time. So people are saying, why should we do this just because people are demanding it? I feel manipulated. OK. This is how I feel about that. It seems to me, first of all, that having a pronoun to mark non-binary identity could be seen as pretty basic. It could be seen as something that a critical mass of people could agree is a moral advance. If you think about history, if you think about what seems to be the case in all cultures, there are people who feel like they are neither male nor female. There are people who feel like the categories of boy and girl just don't fit. Now, cultures vary widely, but just about any culture that I've ever had occasion to study has some room, usually some quiet room for people who just don't feel like that kind of categorization works — the non-binary person. Why can't our pronouns catch up with that?

And of course, many people seem to think, well in terms of basic plumbing, there's the boy kind and the girl kind. And it's clear that people are born (except under extremely irregular conditions) with one or the other kind of plumbing. And there you go. So why are we being asked to model our language based on something that some people feel we should look at despite the fact that it doesn't seem to correspond with the way Nature supposedly had it? or something along those lines. But you know what? That doesn't convince me either, because think about formality. Think about that in a language like French, you have tu in the singular informally, but then formally you use the plural form vous because there's vous, your teacher, as opposed to tu, your friend. OK. Well, that's based on these issues of hierarchy. Now, in a small band of humans, which is how we began, there's a tiny bit of that, but not much, because there are, you know, there are only 100 of you. The idea that you have people above and people below, you know, let's do our Rousseau, that's what happens with creeping modernity. And next thing you know, you have these codes as to how people address one another from up high down to below and from down below to up high, etc. That isn't the way things started. It's something that happens in society because of a kind of a gradual accretion that nobody ever plans. And yet, languages are full of ways of indicating formality, including the one that I'm speaking. We just accept that.

It seems to me that if that's seen as a refinement, just like, you know, the development of something called “cake.” Or like tea, how did anybody figure that out? We're going to take these leaves and burn them in the sun and then boil them in water, and we're going to pretend that's good. I just, that's — I actually like tea. But still, that's odd. Well, this issue of a non-binary orientation where you don't want to be a “she” or a “he,” that's a refinement. It wasn't something going on officially, certainly not in language 300 years ago, but frankly, look what happened to them. So it seems to me that it's a refinement.

However, I know that that's not all that people are thinking. People are also thinking this: They're worried about the slippery slope. If we allow the new, new “they,” then the next step might be for people to say that everybody should be addressed as “they,” unless otherwise notified. Or maybe everybody should just be a “they” and we should try to get rid of “he” and “she.” And there are some scattered calls for that, you know, the polite thing being that everybody's a “they” unless otherwise notified. And I can very much imagine some people saying, why don't we just have everybody be a “they” and get rid of the whole idea that we have to mark in language this distinction between people with boy parts and people with girl parts? OK. That would be an interesting proposal. I can wrap my head around somebody who would propose it, but to tell you the truth, I'm not sure that there's a slippery slope that we would need to worry about here.

This is my guess on this. If people called for “they” to be used in that way, it would be about as popular as the term “Latinx” is. “Latinx” is a very popular way of referring to Latino people without gender marking among a certain college town/activist group of people. And that's great, but it doesn't seem to be gaining any purchase beyond that. I live in a neighborhood where every second person lives in Spanish, and I have never once heard any of the people just walking around in the street using “Latinx” and you don't get the feeling they're going to. Surveys make it pretty clear that's the way it is. Calls to have “they” be universal and to marginalize “he” and “she” completely, that will get about as far as “Latinx.” And I don't think there's anything wrong with there being a register that is used primarily by highly educated people as opposed to the vast majority of people. The sky isn't going to fall if that happens, but I think that entities that call for “they” to be used that way would see their enrollments fall, and the bottom line would start to call the tune. I wouldn't worry about that slippery slope.

But then there is another one. There are people who are telling me (and I completely get what they mean) that this business of using new, new “they” isn't just some linguistic development, but it's part of a whole new mindset, a whole new approach to sex/gender, where not only is it about pronouns, but it's about kids making decisions about not only their identities, but their bodies before they're possibly of age to be able to make that decision responsibly. Decisions being imposed on kids by their parents for the same reasons. Issues of who should use which restrooms and why. Issues of what sort of person ought to be allowed to compete against what other sort of person in sports. Issues of how to deal with gender dysphoria. Whether gender dysphoria is something treatable by psychologists and psychiatrists, as opposed to something which is just so permanent that we should accept it as fact. These are very thorny issues, and I must say that as somebody who's hosting a language podcast, it's quite impossible for me to sound off with opinions about those sorts of things. All of it is very new to me, and I'm working it out.

But I would say this: I don't quite understand the argument that teaching people to use “they” in the new, new way must necessarily mean that you're opening the door to unconsidered approaches to all of these other things. And you know what it sounds to me like? It sounds like someone saying, don't teach slavery or racism in schools at all, because that could lead to people using the excesses of critical race theory and teaching students that if they're black, they're permanently oppressed, and if they're white, they're oppressors, and teaching students that all intellectual, artistic and moral endeavors should be about overturning power differentials and the like. I.e. the critical race theory that many people (and in my opinion, if I may give one, they are correct), are so worried about. Well, how about this? Teaching slavery and racism could under some circumstances be used as a gateway drug to teaching people that they live in hell when they're seven or eight years old, but notice how rash the argument sounds. Would that happen enough? Or is teaching slavery and racism important in other ways such that you could at least try that and just hope and maybe even work, depending on how societal consensus falls, to keep the excesses from following in their wake? To me, that's what's going on here. So, the new, new “they” does not mean that we're making decisions about how to handle gender dysphoria and what parents should allow their children to do to themselves and at what age. In general, I think, and I've sometimes considered writing a book about this and then realized nobody would read it, but it's a major issue. The slippery slope argument, in my opinion, is over applied and I just don't see it with these pronouns. Societal change happens via compromise, slowly and with a lot of fighting, but it happens via compromise. And I see “they” as a kind of progress that could happen without opening the gates to things that truly disturb and even appall other people. Society has to decide, but things happen slowly, and I think that the pronoun could happen even theoretically without any of the rest of it happening, depending on how society ends up falling on those questions.

You know, it's about change and endless change can feel disorienting. I know I'm supposed to say at this point that things are changing in our society faster than ever. But do you notice that people are generally saying that about American society at all times? And I'm not sure that it's ever not been true in my lifetime. But still, things are always changing, and it's disorienting. It's like buildings being constantly torn down and being thrown back up. It's like that happening in Manhattan. You could write a song about it. Irving Berlin did write a song about it. It was for the musical Face the Music in the Depression in 1931. It was called “Manhattan Madness.” I'm not sure why “Manhattan Madness” isn't sung more than it is, because it really is a great little song, and frankly, New York is still exactly like this 90 years later. So much has changed, but it's still all about things constantly being torn down and put back up, and you never quite know where you are.

Manhattan Madness

There's a bonus to this episode. To get the bonus you have to actually sign up and pay something at BooksmartStudios.org. And what's in the bonus is actually my opinions about the latest Native American archeological findings and their implications for language. Now, I started to put that as kind of a coda to this episode, but I think that’d be a little tone deaf. The new, new “they” issues are rather emotional for many. I can't then all of a sudden just do a hairpin turn. So you get it as a bonus, but you won't know what I think about language and the latest findings about Native Americans and where they were and when unless you actually join up with BooksmartStudios.org. But you know there's somebody who gets a free bonus, and that is Becky Luskin. Becky Luskin, it is your 40th birthday and your husband has asked me to let you know that I know it here. And so, yes, you and I are both turning 40 this year, except I'm 56 on October 6th. But happy birthday to you, Becky. This is your day and not mine, or I presume that it was rather recently.

In any case, if you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts, Banished and Bully Pulpit, or subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and, as always, Mike Vuolo. That catchy theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services. Those sister podcasts, again, are Banished with Amna Khalid and Bully Pulpit with Bob Garfield, and this podcast is Lexicon Valley. And I am John McWhorter.