In defense of a singular ‘they’ — it’s not your grandma’s grammar

     An Oxford English Dictionary is shown at the headquarters of the Associated Press in New York. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, file)

    An Oxford English Dictionary is shown at the headquarters of the Associated Press in New York. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, file)

    The 2015 Word of the Year, according to members of the American Dialect Society, is “they.” Don’t panic. “Good” grammar evolves to reflect (and shape) a changing culture.

    The lions of linguistics, the gurus of grammar, the experts in etymology have spoken.

    The 2015 Word of the Year, according to members of the American Dialect Society, is not “ammosexual” (someone who loves firearms in a fetishistic manner). It is not “ghost” (to abruptly end a relationship by cutting off communication, especially online). It is not, in this election-year run-up, “thanks, Obama” (a sarcastic phrase in which a person pretends to blame President Obama for a problem).

    Nope. The 2015 word, which beat those other expressions by a landslide, is “they.” Not “they” in the usual, plural sense, as in “my crazy cousins” or “GOP candidates jockeying for the Tea Party vote in South Carolina.”

    The anointed term is “they,” used to denote just one person whose gender is unknown or who identifies as non-binary, genderqueer or a host of other somewhere-on-the-spectrum adjectives.

    And you thought grammar was dull stuff.

    Across a philosophical divide

    At my house, thanks to the Philly schools’ freshman English curriculum, we parse sentences at least once a week. And I — the professional writer in our family, not to mention the one with a B.A. in English from a university whose annual tuition now exceeds the down payment on our house — have become the Designated Grammar Mom.

    My daughter props her feet on the coffee table and her workbook on her lap. One night’s exercise involves finding the prepositional phrases in Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Fog.” Dutifully, she copies down the words: “on little cat feet,” “over harbor and city,” “on silent haunches.” Bingo. Next page?

    But wait. The triumph of “Fog” isn’t that Sandburg used three prepositional phrases in the course of a six-line poem. The triumph is that he brought fog to life, showing us the world in a brand-new way: fog as feline, stealthy, observant, fickle.

    That’s the problem with the way we teach grammar, the way we teach so many subjects, as recipes to swallow by rote: Here’s the formula for figuring the circumference of a circle; there, the three main causes of the Civil War; over there, the steps of photosynthesis. In Japan, teachers present math as a process of discovery; instead of giving kids the rules, then drilling them in problem sets, they invite students to discover, working alone and in groups, how to divide fractions or why adding a negative is the same as subtracting a positive.

    I remember reading about a fourth-grade teacher who wanted her class to understand that one-fifth was less than one-fourth. A student insisted it wasn’t, because “if you divide the pie into five pieces, more people could eat it.” Ah, the difference between largeness and largesse. What class is this, anyway? Math? Language arts? Ethics?

    Yikes! Grammar can be subtle.

    My daughter wants me to stop thinking so much. Tonight’s lesson is on interjections — the expressions, punctuated with a comma or an exclamation point, that introduce a sentence carrying strong emotion. The book offers various situations, and the student is supposed to choose the most apt interjection from a list.

    Scenario: Someone who’s been pestering you shows up at your door. Do you say, “Man! It’s hot in here,” or “Oh, it’s you again!”

    “I guess, ‘Holy crap, I’m getting a restraining order!’ would not be appropriate,” I tell my daughter, and we nearly topple off the couch, laughing. We chuckle some more over the lesson on conjunctions, with its puzzle of a sentence, “The meat was delicious but cheap.” Wouldn’t “and cheap” make better sense, I wonder, or, more specifically, “the Wagyu beef was delicious but insanely expensive”?

    The book seems to forget that grammar is more than a set of rules — it’s the midwife of meaning, helping our intentions to emerge in speech and writing. Sure, you can use a prepositional phrase (“we were treated with decency and fairness”) instead of an adverb (“we were treated decently and fairly”), but those aren’t simply two equivalent alternatives; the first is more dilute, while the adverbs pack greater punch. And a wise editor would strip the sentence of its passive voice: “The judge/flight attendant/lunch ladies treated us decently and fairly.”

    You gotta give a little

    My daughter likes the exercises that require rewriting sentences pocked with grammatical minefields. “I’m good at this because I read,” she says. “But I’m not good at, like, finding all the adverbs in a passage.” Guess what? Neither am I — notwithstanding that English degree, plus two years of boot camp at The Washington Post, where an editor with a growl and a green plastic visor taught me the difference between “that” and “which.”

    My daughter’s English teacher told me they opted to use the workbook because upper-class teachers had complained that students were blind to grammatical convention. I get that; sloppy syntax grates on me, and I’m one of those punctuation geeks who goes ballistic over a holiday card from “The Johnson’s.” But I also worry that approaching grammar in this way — value-neutral, divorced from significance and culture — will just suck joy from those poor, beleaguered words.

    It’s a little like taking a moist, warm-from-the-oven brownie and, before you eat it, analyzing its chemical components. An interesting exercise; meanwhile, the treat cools and hardens on your plate.

    Memorable sentences melt in the mouth or ooze over the tongue or catch in the throat like a halibut bone. Real writers use sentence fragments, dangle their participles like so many Christmas stockings, split infinitives and begin whole paragraphs with the word “but.” And if they’re e.e. cummings, they torque convention even further, fracturing syntax and flinging punctuation around like loose change.

    “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” I give my daughter the same answer I gave her about going to Hebrew School: It’s important to learn the rules so you can make informed decisions about whether and when to break them.

    And, as the American Dialect Society made clear, “good” grammar evolves to reflect (and shape) a changing culture. Lack a gender-neutral pronoun? Invent one! Or, at least, reboot an existing pronoun to serve a new purpose. Even that staid archive of language, the Oxford English Dictionary, recently added “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”) as an alternative to “Ms.” and “Mr.”

    Hallelujah! (Interjection.) Let’s squirt (active verb) some joy and surprise (conjunction linking two adjectives of equal rank) back into reading and writing (prepositional phrase). Finish the grammar lesson, kids, then get out there and talk to one another. It’s 2016, and they has reason to celebrate. Sound a bit odd to the ear? Grammar’s like that, in the real world. You’ll get used to it.

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