They Need ‘They’

The writer of a piece in Aeon titled “We need the singular ‘they’ – and it won’t seem wrong for long” is:

  • Jewish? Check.
  • Feminist? Check.
  • Lives in NYC? Check.

Like the white and Jewish progressives who experienced tearful catharsis voting for the first black President in U.S. history, these pomo academics get thrills and great personal ego satisfaction at being on the forefront of re-engineering Culture:

A few years later, as a manuscript editor at the New York branch of Oxford University Press, I helped engineer the next contentious usage shift. Feminism was acquiring legitimacy (much like non-binary gender identities today), and feminists pushed for nonsexist language, including alternatives to ‘man’ and ‘he’ as generics. In 1974, the McGraw-Hill Book Company – to my knowledge the first publisher to tackle the nuts and bolts of accomplishing this change – created the 11-page document ‘Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes’.

One day, my boss handed me this guide. I was known as ‘the feminist’, and I imagine she saw me as a guinea pig to test how it would go over. In any case, I jumped on it. The workarounds that McGraw proposed to avoid man and he – make the verb plural, ‘reword to eliminate unnecessary gender pronouns’, use ‘he or she, her or his’ (though I rarely had the nerve to put the female pronoun first) – were hedged with cautions to avoid producing ‘an awkward or artificial construction’. So I did my utmost to introduce these changes without damaging my authors’ prose, but it was a stretch. Even to me, ‘he or she’ seemed awkward and downright weird. The responses from my recalcitrant (almost entirely male) authors ranged from bursts of fury, to erudite lectures on English usage and the importance of tradition, to kindly pointing out how much more felicitous was their original phrasing. Feminism was weird and outlandish, too, and to most of these academics didn’t seem important enough to justify mauling their prose. I was pushing these innovations on my own; there was no policy at Oxford, as at McGraw. I got away with it because despite being young, female and without a PhD, in their eyes I incarnated 500 years of literary authority.

Today, it’s hard to remember the degree of resistance that nonsexist language evoked at the time. A long excerpt from the McGraw guide that ran in The New York Times Magazine elicited anguished responses: ‘A conspiracy is afoot to reform society by purging the language … innocent children [are] to be cast adrift from the security of traditional roles’ through the machinations of ‘Orwellian editors’, warned one letter. The honorific Ms, which had been around since the turn of the century but spread particularly after the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971, met with resistance for years. Sonia Jaffe Robbins, a copyeditor, then copy chief, at The Village Voice between 1975 and 1986, recalls encountering resistance even at this Leftist publication, for example from a theatre critic who insisted on referring to actresses as ‘Miss’.

Now comes ‘they’, and I admit it’s a tough one. Paula Froke, the AP Stylebook lead editor, gives two reasons for embracing ‘they’: ‘recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular’ and ‘the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she’. The first ‘they’, as in ‘Everyone can decide which personal pronoun best matches their identity’, is what people have been doing for centuries anyway; most of us already use it without thinking. But the second usage, which raises fundamental questions about identity, society and the nature of reality itself, has met furious resistance.

… Once a copyeditor, always a grammar nerd, and I confess that ‘Carey makes themself coffee every morning’ makes me wince. But I’m willing to wince for as long as it takes – most likely, not very long.

Ironically, it is They (virtue-signaling progressives) who most need ‘They’.

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