As the Lamborghini grade intellectual powerhouse of linguistic genius that I am, I rarely read the common literature which equates to mental junk food. The key word is “rarely” for at some point I see headlines which scathe my soul to its depth. “Pray what can scathe one so deeply?” you may ask. The answer is simple. The nigh on unforgivable sin of teaching erroneous grammar or warping meaning.
I speak of the article written for “Teen Vogue” which is entitled “All your Questions about Gender-Neutral Pronouns Answered” by Desmond Meagley. Fear not Desmond, I am a beneficent linguist and while I generally charge money to educate, I will be merciful upon your linguistically challenged soul by instructing you in the basics of the English language.
The first thing one should remember is that in any language the rules are governed not only by grammar or by a single word free of context but by semantics and morphology (I know they are big words but do try to keep up). In layman’s terms, there are principles of context and grammar which form rules so as to encode meaning which is subsequently decoded by the listener (oh dear was that very patriarchal of me? layman….). It means one can babble on and make all sorts of nonsensical assertions about language and how it is used and yet, the actual way that it is decoded will render one’s utterances invalid if the message is not understood.
To assist understanding, I will analyse the article and clearly display why when one wishes to dance the linguistic tango, that one must in fact know the steps or else risk looking like an uncoordinated and somewhat intoxicated grasshopper.
The aforementioned article is written in a format of question and answer format that even the dimmest of teenagers is likely to understand and reasonably so for the magazine “Teen Vogue” is not aimed at the sharpest tools in the shed. The context of this piece is that the author argued for the use of they /them as a singular personal pronoun.
“You look like a boy/girl. Why use they instead of he/she? I look like me. That’s all there is to it. If someone else looks at me and decides I am something or another based on the clothes I’m wearing, or whether or not I’m wearing make up, that assumption is on them: it has nothing to do with who or what I actually am.”
A mildly passive aggressive answer and yet somewhat of an oxymoron. I do wager to ask: “If indeed you are self-confident enough to not care what assumption others make about your personage, then why is it necessary to impose the usage of a predefined term of self-identification on others? Would that not rather suggest insecurity and immaturity?” Just asking for a friend.
The following was like watching a rocket blast off heavenward full of energy and power only to suddenly veer off at an angle strike the ground with excessive force and burst into flame. The design was flawed. So near and yet so far………..
“You’re only one person! How does that work?”
It’s really, really simple. In English, we already use singular “they” all the time when the gender of a person is unknown. Say you see fifty bucks on the ground and pick it up. You might say: “Oh, someone dropped their money here. I’ll set it aside for them, I bet they are looking everywhere!”
Alas, so near thee saileth, so near yon words thee spake rung true. Indeed, “they” and “them” are used as a singular plural within very strict semantic and morphological parameters defined by spoken situational context. “They” and “them” are used ONLY when the person is unknown and their gender, that is to say, their sex, is unknown. It is never used when the person is known to those communicating and only leaves possibility open that a member or members of either gender could carry out an action. (Fun biological fact, there are two genders.)
“When someone uses they/them pronouns, all you have to do is apply that same sentence construction: “Oh, Desmond dropped their money here. I’ll set it aside for them, I bet they are looking everywhere!”
The rocket has disintegrated. I take it that English was not your forté at school. The sentence is both semantically and morphologically incorrect and looks ridiculous. Perhaps it would be a kindness unto thyself to refrain from explaining any more of your pseudo-linguistic musings. Sadly, it continues….
“I’m fine with non-binary people, but I don’t believe in singular they pronouns. It makes no sense.”Not only are you on the wrong side of history, you’re also on the wrong side of English, my friend.”
Firstly, expressing an attitude of friendship when one has only just introduced oneself in an article could give the impression of a condescending attitude, we wouldn’t want that now would we?
Secondly, humans are dimorphic and hence we all belong to a binary.
Thirdly, I strongly recommend against attempting to pull out a dictionary and embarrassing oneself by spouting a poorly formed and linguistically unsound argument with below par reasoning. Especially, when historically it has been used only to refer to unknown individuals.
Alright then, it’s a free country.
“Major dictionaries have recognized singular they as grammatically correct for years, including the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, and dictionary.com. The word “they” has been used as a singular pronoun since at least the 16th century, and some argue it goes back even earlier. We’re not making up new words and grammar here. Clearly, it makes sense to a lot of people who know a lot about the English language, so I don’t know why everyone gets so hung up on this.”
No one, “gets hung up” on this point when it is used to refer to an unknown individual carrying out an action. People only object to the incorrect grammatical usage based on erroneous semantic and morphological structures. You are attempting to make new grammar by insinuating a form that violates the semantic structure. The dictionary definition only applies to the already explained reference of when one is talking about an unknown individual or individuals. It does make sense to those who know a lot about the English language that the proposed assertion of using they/them for a known individual is laughably inaccurate. This is starting to get painfully repetitive.
The arguments given are taken out of context and obviously lacks any depth or linguistic insight. The poor developed reasoning skills are aimed at the cognitively underdeveloped and is likely to further inhibit future growth of mental capabilities if teens consume this sort of faux linguistics.
Alas, to err is but human, in the future let us continue to use the English language as it is supposed to be used and not put too much thought into our own whimsical interpretations. Let us pass over this as the result of misguided youthful over exuberance and deficit of knowledge. It would be highly recommended that one invest in a grammar exercise book which would save one from this type of embarrassment in the future.
I have educated the throngs against this grammatical faux pas and extended my benevolent mercy upon the linguistically underdeveloped. May proper linguistics smile benignantly on your attempts to master the English language.
The train wreck original article : https://www.teenvogue.com/story/they-them-questions-answered
Alaric Naudé is a professor specialising in education, linguistics and social science. He is widely recognised as having a great face for radio.