Here’s a crazy idea that might work.
“They” has become the English language’s preferred third person singular pronoun, for gender-neutral use. But of course, we use the same pronoun for the third person plural. That creates confusion. Why not revise the pronoun’s spelling when it’s singular? Why not switch out the “e” for an “a”?
You’d need only a few words of explanation. “In this [article/book], I use ‘thay,’ ‘thair,’ and ‘tham’ as third person singular pronouns, equivalent to ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them.’ I use the latter three solely as third person plural pronouns.“
Doing the pronoun expansion better this time
Our language has broadened use of a pronoun before. Old English used “thou” for the second person singular and “you” for the plural. But during the Middle Ages, English speakers gradually adopted “you” for the singular. And they dropped “though.” (“Thou” did survive for a while as a familiar version of the singular pronoun. During Shakespeare’s time, it played a role like “tú” in Spanish: a familiar version of “you” and not as respectful as “usted,” the other word for “you.”)
Thanks to that Medieval shift, we often can’t tell today what “you” means. We can’t tell whether it’s singular or plural.
Today’s pronoun shift has the same impact. With an expanded “they,” we often can’t tell singular from plural. Obviously, the language survived and thrived last time. But why not add clarity where we can, at least in writing?
The “thay” pronoun in action
- “Thay can can offer suggestions by e-mail.”
- “This is thair chance to speak up.”
- “Give tham your feedback.”
OK, those look like a spelling errors. But we’d get used to it. And you can easily hit “ignore all” in your spell-checker — or “add to dictionary.”
The beauty of this switch: it adds clarity without requiring a change in speech.
What about verb conjugation?
Grammar purists might prefer a change in verb conjugation as well. Most people today use singular “they” with verbs conjugated for the plural. We say “they run,” the typical plural use, even when “they” is singular. If we adopt this “thay” spelling change, should we also switch to singular conjugation: e.g., “thay runs” — or “thay has good grammar”?
A conjugation switch would make sense … but I doubt anyone will do it. It calls for a change in spoken English. Fat chance.
Anyway, the English language didn’t “fix” conjugation when “you” expanded its role. We conjugate “you” as if it were plural, even when it’s singular. We say, “you run” — regardless of what we mean by “you.”
Pronoun workarounds and respect
Of course, you could just write your way around singular/plural confusion by avoiding the third person pronoun altogether, at least when gender isn’t defined. For instance: “The author should sign the author’s name on the dotted line” (instead of “sign his/her/thair name”). But that’s a bit painful.
Worse, that denies non-binary people any pronoun. It gives third person singular pronouns only to the majority, who comfortably rely on “he” or “she.” Better to use “they” for both plural and singular — and maybe better still to use “thay.”
In this post, I mean to address an issue in our ever-evolving language — while respecting those most touched by that issue. If I’ve failed on the latter front, I am sorry, and I’d like to know. You can write to me below, in the comments section.
© 2021 by David W. Tollen – All rights reserved.
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