God and Grammar
This week I am spending Passover with my family. Perhaps inspired by the season, I picked up the newsletter that comes from Kolot Chayeinu (“Voices of Our Lives), the synagogue I used to attend in Brooklyn, New York. I read it cover to cover for the first time in months.
It won’t surprise you that a grammatical issue leapt up at me from the pages of the newsletter. Kathryn Conroy of Kolot Chayeinu writes about the open nature of this progressive congregation:
“The person who prays because they believe that God will personally make a difference in their daily life is not the least bit threatened by the person standing next to them who does not believe in God at all.”
The Singular “They”
Did you spot the issue in Kathryn’s sentence? It has become common for writers to refer to a single person, who could be of either gender, as a “they.” This “singular they” construction is grammatically problematic. Clearly one person does not qualify as a “they,” “their” or “them” (all of which were used in Kathryn’s prose). Yet we refer, perhaps lazily, or even sloppily, to singles as multiples – because it would be challenging or awkward to be grammatically rigorous.
My uncle once created a neutral pronoun for just this situation: fub. It didn’t catch on. So at least for now, we’re still stuck with a lack of a non-gendered singular personal pronoun in the English language.
Given the current state of affairs and my discomfort with the use of the singular “they,” I’ve decided to take on the challenge of improving upon the sentence from Kolot Chayeinu’s newsletter. How would I write this sentence to avoid grammatical detention?
Rewriting the Sentence
One possibility is:
“The person who prays because he or she believes that God will personally make a difference in his or her daily life is not the least bit threatened by the person standing next to him or her who does not believe in God at all.”
Hmmm… not so great. Stilted, right? This is exactly the type of sentence Ms. Conroy was avoiding.
Next option: Gender the language. Here’s what it looks like:
“The woman who prays because she believes that God will personally make a difference in her daily life is not the least bit threatened by the man standing next to her who does not believe in God at all.”
I was surprised to discover that this sentence is much more powerful than the original – poignant even — in addition to being grammatically sound. An image is conjured of an actual woman and man standing next to each other praying, rather than of some vague or possible scenario.
Third option: Make it Plural
“Congregation members who pray because they believe that God will personally make a difference in their daily lives are not the least bit threatened by those standing next to them who do not believe in God at all.”
This sentence is grammatically correct, though in my opinion it doesn’t pack the punch of the gendered option.
The Essay Expert is a Traditionalist
My vote for Kathryn’s sentence is to use a gendered version. And I prefer even the somewhat stilted language of the rigorously neutral option to the grammatically incorrect original. However, I am a traditionalist. The grammar books don’t necessarily agree with me.
Not every situation lends itself to gendered language as well as does Kathryn’s sentence. Sometimes our choice is between the “singular they” and a stilted “he/she” in order to avoid politically incorrect gendered language. And sometimes making the subject plural does the trick quite gracefully.
My practice in these situations is to pluralized the subject or to use “he or she” rather than “they.” Or, if there are repeated references to a non-gendered “person” or “someone” in a piece of prose, I might alternate between the masculine and feminine pronouns. When in doubt, I err on the side of feminine pronouns. After all, there are hundreds of years of usage of the traditional “he” to balance things out.
Here’s what Wikipedia reports on the acceptability of the singular “they”:
There has been considerable debate as to the acceptability of singular they. Regarding usage, The Chicago Manual of Style notes:
On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he) in reference to no one in particular. On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.
With the 14th edition (1993), the Manual briefly revised its neutral stance to actually recommend “singular use of they and their“, noting a “revival” of this usage and citing “its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.” However, regret regarding that printing is expressed at its website; and with the current 15th edition (2003), it has returned to its original neutral position.
The 2011 translation of the New International Version Bible utilizes singular they instead of “he” or “he or she”, refelecting [sic] changes in English usage. The translators commissioned a study of modern English usage and determined that singular “‘they’ (‘them’/’their’) is by far the most common way that English-language speakers and writers today refer back to singular antecedents such as ‘whoever,anyone,somebody,a person,no one,’ and the like.”
What’s your opinion about how to handle the “singular they”? Do you have any sample sentences to send me as a challenge? Do you see any other ways to write Kathryn’s sentence? And wouldn’t you love to be part of a community where the openness Kathryn describes is a reality?
Happy Passover Brenda,
I have always stumbled with the singular “they” and have used the he/she instead. It would make it so much easier to use Kathryn’s version as it would save all the rewrite time. I like how you are going to use feminine pronouns because “he” has been used for so many years. I think I will do the same. It’s about time!
Happy Passover to you too Nancy! What I really am getting from this conversation is that there is no true right or wrong way to do it. We can choose the way that works best for the situation! I always like it when this happens.
Thank you for tackling this irksome subject! I’ve grown up believing the singular “they” was just wrong. Back in high school, which was awhile ago, I was taught to use “one” in these situations, but evidently this in now passe. I miss it! It was such a convenient solution to the dilemma. Can we create a movement for it’s comeback?
Hope I see you around town when you get back!
Happy Passover Brenda! Great post! I, too, am often troubled when I see ‘they’ used for one person. My resolution has been to insert ‘s/he’ or refer to ‘him/her’ as you have done in a sense. Or to rewrite a sentence to make ‘they’ and ‘them’ fit better. I like the way you address this topic.
Another grammatical issue I was taught when in school was the use of ‘there’ when starting a sentence. My professor hated it and adamantly taught us to rewrite a sentence to prevent such construction. Since college, however, it seems this has become passe as I have seen many editors begin sentences with ‘There’ without second thoughts and often justify it. Instead of debating the issue, I merely ensure my writing does not include such usage. What is your thought on this?
Also, since we are talking grammatical, I noticed a typo in the second sentence of the second paragraph. Looks like the third word was not omitted upon a rewrite of the sentence.
Enjoy your time with family and have a great weekend!
Hi Nancy, thank you for raising the issue of starting a sentence with “there.” I am comfortable with that usage, e.g., “There are many things to be grateful for in life!” Sometimes using “there” to start a sentence is superfluous, e.g., instead of “There are many people who disagree with that rule,” say “Many people disagree with that rule.”
Thank you for catching my proofreading oversight. It has been corrected!
And thank you for the holiday wishes. I’m having a wonderful time and look forward to attending the Clearwater Generations concert tomorrow night!
Hi Brenda and Happy Passover!
I never had this problem until I came to the U.S. and was doing phone research. The questionnaires were full of grammatical errors and this one, in particular, using “they” to refer to a singular stuck in my throat. I tried to substitute it verbally with he/she or him/her, but if it looks stilted in writing (except for business letters/reports), it sounded worse when spoken. I love the solution that you gave above, which may require a bit more consideration, but as you said, makes the sentence much more powerful.
I have several other grammatical peeves that are becoming more common such as using “a” instead of “an” and “that” instead of “who.” My English teacher must be turning in her grave at the way the English language is being distorted and rules flagrantly dismissed.
Thanks Penelope. Another solution is to use plurals, since we do have a gender-neutral plural third person pronoun.
I am with you on the “who vs. that” issue, though there is debate about whether it is incorrect to refer to people as “that.” Definitely a topic for me to tackle in the future.
The use of “a” instead of “and” occurs more in speech than in written communication, as far as I can tell.
We live in a constantly evolving world of language and things that were not acceptable even a couple of years ago are now the norm.
Gosh, did I make a mistake when I wrote, Hi Brenda and Happy Passover, as if the latter was also a person! Obviously, it should have read: Hi Brenda. Happy Passover! A mistake in my very first comment about grammatical correctness.
Hi Penelope, I would not have noticed that “mistake” if you hadn’t pointed it out! Good catch. I saw one other thing in this recent post, however: I would suggest writing “… as if the latter *were* also a person.” This is an example of the subjunctive tense and I will put it on my list for blog articles in the future! Here’s one site I found that addresses the issue: https://www.ceafinney.com/subjunctive/guide.html
Thanks so much for your comments Penelope!
I would also suggest the following:
People who pray because they. . . are not the least threatened by the person standing next to them . . . .
I struggle with the singular they when I read it so I often use he or she, or vary the gender of the person in different sentences or different paragraphs. I don’t do it consistently because then I appear too worried about the sex of the subjects and not as concerned about my topic.
Hi Ann, yes I’ve been thinking that I should add to my article the option of making the subject plural. In this particular example I still like the gendered language because of the picture it draws. I agree that in many instances, however, pluralizing is the best solution!
As I mentioned earlier, I am a sinner to the -nth degree! Yes, using they and their bother me when referring to a singular person…
But I’ve decided that readability and the comfort of my readers is more important to me than being grammatically correct. It still galls me. But I go with it!
My blog for parents of kids who can’t read is as conversational as I can make it, and my personal blog is truly “me to you” in its style.
So even though the purist in my still lives!—I have adapted and accept what people feel most comfortable with. Because quite honestly, none of my readers choose me for my grammar.
They choose me because what I have to say resonates in their (!-hey, but it was plural!) lives.
I’ll always grimace…but then I’ll write just as I would speak to them. And the English perfectionist in me be damned! (Did you notice how many incomplete sentences I used? I feel sure you did. 😉 )
Great comment Paula, and it reminds us that we write for our audience. If the audience expects a particular type of language, it is our job as writers to give it to them. When I’m on the streets of Brooklyn, I ask people if they know “where the laundromat is at.” Anything else would just sound weird.
Thank you for your additional option of using the second person. In the example at hand, it would not work in exactly the language you offered since the author is describing a scenario that occurs in a congregation. However, it could read, “At Kolot Chayeinu, if you pray because you believe that God will personally make a difference in your daily life, those around you will not be the least bit threatened — even if they do not believe in God at all.”