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Opinion

Column: A Word, Please: Actor’s protest against use of ‘they’ is harebrained

I understand why people get frustrated with the so-called language police.

Personally, I don’t mind requests that I use more sensitive language. If a guy named Robert asks me to call him Bob, or for that matter, if a guy named Robert asks me to call him Skippy, it’s only courteous that I address him as he wishes to be addressed.

The same thing goes for talking about groups of people. I understand why others may not be so accommodating, but, to me, it’s just politeness writ large.

However, when people try to tell you how to talk, that’s when things get ugly. And if they try to use grammar as a justification for their language bullying, things get ugly and stupid. Enter this Feb. 12 tweet from actor James Woods.

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“The correct pronoun usage in the English language is ‘he’ for a singular male and ‘she’ for a singular female. ‘They’ is used for the plural of either males, females or both. Don’t be bullied by hare-brained liberals.”

First off, it’s harebrained, not hare-brained. The one-word form means foolish.

When you make your own hyphenated compound, you’re expressly referencing the brain of a hare, which could suggest anything from a craving for delicious grass to a full-blown case of Easter Bunny envy.

Yes, harebrained began life as a reference to a hare. But it has evolved to mean something quite specific, and today, it carries almost no meaningful reference to the rabbit’s leggy cousin.

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One can be forgiven for not checking a dictionary on this matter when one is not engaged in the act of language bullying. But when telling people how to talk — especially with a side of nastiness and insults — failure to confirm the meaning of your own words is downright harebrained.

But, more important: Woods is just wrong about “they.”

“They” has been officially recognized as a singular pronoun for centuries. Lexicographers have noted uses going back to the 1300s. And even careful style guides like the Associated Press Stylebook allow it.

Sometimes “they” to refer to a singular antecedent can help sidestep sexist language, like assuming a hypothetical doctor is male:

“If you have an internist, they should know what medicines you’re on.”

But it would be a mistake to assume singular “they” started in the 1970s.

“Although a lack of a common-gender, third-person singular pronoun has received much attention in recent years from those concerned with women’s issues, the problem, as felt by writers, is much older; the plural pronouns have been pressed into use to supply the missing form since Middle English,” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

As an example, the guide cites a passage from Chaucer penned in 1395: “And whoseo fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up.”

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“They” is a way to avoid writing “he or she” over and over.

Another common reason to use “they” when referring to a singular person is that you’re not actually sure it is just one person. This happens a lot when working with pronouns like “whoever.”

“Whoever is unwilling to accept these terms, well — they know where the door is.”

In these cases, “they” spares you an even longer term: “he, she or they,” as in “Whoever is unwilling to accept these terms, well — he, she or they know where the door is.”

In the 18th century, some overconfident grammarians started pushing a solution: If you don’t know the number or the sex of the person in question, just use the masculine pronoun.

This led to real-world stupidity like this example from a 1983 edition of Reader’s Digest: “She and Louis had a game — who could find the ugliest photograph of himself.”

That brings us full circle to Woods: Don’t use language rules as a tool to promote ugliness. You’ll always come off as harebrained.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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