The inevitable epicene solution

BEN YAGODA, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware, is author of the book "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech for Better and/or Worse."

WHAT DOES A tipping point sound like? Possibly, what I heard recently when a leaf of paper fluttered out of a credit card mailing. It offered rewards points for ordering additional cards for family members and had the heading: “No one has to know you added them for the rewards.” The copywriter’s use of the word “them” -- instead of the traditional “him” or the more recently favored “him or her” -- was the semantic straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a signal that the genderless pronoun had arrived.

“Returned” might be a better way to put it. Before the mid-18th century, English writers and speakers universally referred back to an indefinite antecedent (“everyone,” “anyone,” “a person”) with the pronouns “they,” “their” or “them.” This was understandable because all singular personal pronouns are gender specific. And so, Shakespeare: “God send everyone their heart’s desire.” The King James Bible: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.” Henry Fielding: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 21, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 21 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Pronouns: An article on Monday’s opinion page about grammar misspelled the name of the scholar who has assembled a list of epicene pronouns proposed since the 1850s. His name is Dennis Baron, and his list now extends beyond the 29 cited in the article.

From the late 1700s through the early 1900s, much grammatical rule making took place in England and the United States, and the rule makers were offended by the use of otherwise plural pronouns to stand in for singular nouns. Their collective wisdom determined that the appropriate pronoun in all such cases should be masculine generic -- that is, “he,” “him” and “his.” The usage is grammatically unimpeachable but, in excluding females, is not only politically but factually incorrect, leading to the publication of sentences such as, “Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young.”


Even 150 years ago, the usage bothered many people. Linguistic innovators proposed alternatives; 29 have been cataloged by scholar Dennis Barron, including “thon,” “le,” “ip,” “zi” and “hiser.” Obviously none caught on. Change only happened in the 1970s, when feminism made the masculine generic more or less untenable. The innocuous and awkward “he or she” became the accepted choice, supplemented by such slasher pronouns as “s/he” and “him/her.”

But all the while the singular “they” -- linguists’ technical term for it is epicene pronoun -- led a kind of shadow existence. It was popular if not prevalent in speech, where in addition to its other virtues it can convey gender indeterminacy: “I was talking to someone in a bar and they gave me their phone number.” And it was frequently used in print by notable stylists. Oscar Wilde, for instance: “Experience is the name everybody gives to their mistakes.”

A milestone on the road to official acceptance arrived in the 13th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, published in 1993, which recommended “the revival of the singular use of they and their.” Some authorities continue to push this line hard. Merriam-Webster says use of the epicene pronoun is “well established.” The more conservative American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel sniffs at that notion. Presented with the sentence, “The typical student takes about six years to complete their coursework,” 82% of the members deemed the “their” unacceptable.

But they have bet on the wrong horse. Anecdotally, I find a new example just about every day, such as an Associated Press article referring to “a law that prohibits commercial use of someone’s name or likeness without their consent.” The Google Scholar tool, which searches respectably published books and articles, reveals that since the beginning of 2006, “everyone has his” and “everyone has his or her” were used a combined 53 times. “Everyone has their”? Fifty-nine.

At this point, “they” sounds so right that people think they’re reading it even when they’re not. Some weeks ago, I came upon a New York Times article that quoted a line from the 1949 essay “Here is New York” by E.B. White -- coauthor, with William Strunk, of “The Elements of Style.” The quote read: “No one should come to New York unless they are willing to be lucky.” That didn’t sound like 1949 language to me, so I looked up the original and found this sentence: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” And no one should quote E.B. White unless they do it carefully.