The Singular They … Again

Screenshot 2023-08-15 at 11.51.40 AM

My first reaction to this social media post by The Bloggess: Who are you taking to college, your daughter or her pets?

Before you jump on me for not blurring names and faces on this screen grab, Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, is very much a public figure, a popular author and blogger who’s widely followed on social media. Jenny frequently shares photos of her daughter Hailey, of whom she’s justly proud.

Now, I get why some of us use the singular they as a pronoun, and why the rest of us should try our best to respect that choice. But here’s a case where there’s both a singular and a plural they in a single photo: Hailey, whose chosen pronouns are they/them; and the babies, her pets.

You see a photo of a single person and two pets. The caption to the photo references “their” and “them.” Your mind locks on the pets, because 99% of the time they’re and them are plural pronouns, and the pets are the only plural in the photo. (But wait, aren’t animals “its”? Nope. Pets are different. In English, pets get pronouns, so two or more of ’em are a they.)

Yeah, I hear you. It only takes a second to figure out what Hailey’s mom really means. But we shouldn’t have to figure it out. One’s meaning should be clear to listeners and readers. What if the photo showed Hailey with two of her (human) friends, and the caption still read “Hailey saying goodbye to their friends before we get in the car to take them to college”? We’d probably assume all three kids are going off to college, and isn’t it nice of Hailey’s mom to drive the whole gang?

I think in the future we’ll look back on this era of pronoun experimentation with embarrassment. You can tell me all day long how the Bible and Shakespeare used the singular they, and maybe they did once or twice, but we all grew up with a clear understanding of singular and plural pronouns, and if the Bible and Shakespeare were so damn hot on the singular they why do we use him and her in the first place?

Update 8/16/23): My last paragraph was unnecessary and mean. I’m coming at pronouns from the perspective of writing, where, at least to me, clarity is everything. There has to be a better way to avoid gendering people who don’t want to be gendered. In casual speech, I might drop the occasional singular they. But not in writing. I’ll find other ways.

3 thoughts on “The Singular They … Again

  • Singular they isn’t all that new, though it might have been a regional thing once upon a time. Kids in central Michigan in the 1960’s used it all the time and none of us were confused*. As a life-long singular they user, that tweet was unambiguous to me.

    * one of our 5th grade teachers would get pretty upset about it, but they got upset about pretty much any speech deviating from upper-middle-class Victorian usages.

  • I put a link to this post on Facebook, where a friend responded with this:

    “They/them/their are actually used as a singular pronouns all the time. If you found a jacket in a cafe you might say to the wait staff, ‘Someone left their jacket. They left it on a chair. Can you give it back to them?’ Obviously only one person owns the jacket. It’s just unconscious bias/social training that makes us believe it’s awkward to use they/them/their.”

    I agree with my friend when it comes to speech. The example she gave is a good one. I’m coming at this from the perspective of writing and reading, where clarity and meaning are, or ought to be, much more important. There are other ways to avoid gendering people who don’t want to be saddled with it than the singular they. So far we haven’t found good ones, but I’m confident we will.

  • Yes, it is confusing and looks ‘wrong’ to an old person with an English degree. And, yes, it does sound like the pets are being driven to college. Or Hailey has a mouse in her pocket who is going to college with her (the Editorial ‘we’). Or an invisible friend.
    I know it’s cumbersome, but for maximum clarity and minimum gender stereotyping and linguistic hegemonic patriarchy all pronouns, like Don Henley, must die:
    “Hailey saying goodbye to Hailey’s babies before Parental Unit(s) get into the car to take Hailey to college…”
    No pronouns, no pronoun problems, easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
    Tod recently posted…Experienced and Conquered: Old Ironsides World Cruise 1844-1846My Profile

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