There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There

David Foster Wallace chose "she" as a pronoun for "the reader."

David Foster Wallace chose “she” as a pronoun for “the reader.”

The story up to now:

In a book I published in 2007,  When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, I made a bold prediction: “You heard it here first: By the middle of the 21st century, the epicene ‘they’ will rule in speech and writing.”

Last year, I observed in Lingua Franca that five years had passed since that statement, and it just wasn’t happening. To be sure, in conversation and online, they and their were and are commonly used as pronouns for hypothetical or indefinite nouns like “anyone,” “each person,” or “the reader.” Facebook even uses it for definite nouns, in formulations like, “Ben Yagoda has changed their profile picture.” But I had to admit that, in edited American prose (it’s different in the U.K.), I hadn’t see any evidence of this usage displacing the traditional “he or she” or “his or her.” My bold mid-21st-prediction was starting to look shaky.

But right now it’s feeling a little firmer. One harbinger is a line that appeared yesterday in David Carr’s media column in The New York Times: “… if we deem someone famous, and they reap the benefit of that, they forfeit their right to privacy.” (Italics here and henceforth mine.) Considerably more examples can be found in Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. Thompson is a capable and assured writer, and the publisher, Penguin, is no fly-by-night outfit. As I was reading the book (whose ideas about the Internet’s effect on writing I recently discussed in Lingua Franca), I began to sense a pronoun pattern in the author’s many hypothetical examples or anecdotes. Two things were immediately apparent. First, like most of us, he used workarounds whenever possible to avoid the issue—either making the subject plural (often posing it as “we”) or jiggering the sentence to make pronouns unnecessary. Second, as Tina Turner might have put it, he never, ever, used “he or she.”

(As an aside, it’s interesting to see, via Google’s Ngram Viewer, how extremely recently “her or she” became standard. It has a long history but in the 19th and 20th centuries was used almost exclusively in legal documents, not starting to become popular in general writing until about 1970.)

I had the sense that when Thompson had to use a pronoun for an indefinite singular subject, he made different choices. For example, compare (A), “Each person has gravitated to a tool they understand well and that fits their cognitive style” and (B), ” … faced with a controversial subject about which she feels strongly, a Wikipedia contributor ought to work extra hard to describe views she finds repellent.” For A, where the subject is the  vague “each person,” the choice is “they”; for the hypothetical but fleshy B (“a Wikipedia contributor”), it’s “she.” It seemed to make sense.

(Another aside. I observe that when contemporary writers choose to use “he” or “she” [as opposed to "he or she"], they tend to either go back and forth between them or exclusively use “she,” as if to make up for years of pronoun discrimination. I find the first disconcerting, as I can’t help trying to figure out if there’s a reason why the male or female was chosen, and the second slightly annoying, especially when used by a male writer clearly trying to get Brownie points for his right-thinkingness. I had thought of the “she” deal as a fairly recent thing, but I find that David Foster Wallace used it as far back as 1993, as quoted in the recently published Conversations With David Foster Wallace: “The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers.” I wonder if anyone can point to an earlier male user.)

About halfway through Thompson’s book, I started taking down all the examples. The final count was 11 theys, six shes, and two hes. And it turned out that the author really did follow the strategy I thought I observed, for the most part. All of the theys were indeed vague (“someone,” “any student”), and all of times where he was sketching out a scenario, he used “he” or “she.” I say “for the most part,” because in two cases, when the antecedent was “someone,” he used “he” and “she.”

We’ll see if others start to follow this sensible approach, which I dub the Thompson Maneuver. In the meantime, I have a question. When going the they route, is the proper reflexive themself or themselves? Thompson chooses the latter (”’while no one appointed themselves the leader…”), but I would tend to go the other way. Your thoughts?


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