From Discover Magazine’s article People Have Used They/Them as Singular Pronouns for Hundreds of Years:
Battles of grammar, for the most part, play out in English classrooms and in the pages of style guides. Rarely do arguments over split infinitives and Oxford commas venture beyond the walls of academia.
My first thought at this point was that whoever wrote this article definitely doesn’t have my circle of online friends. Oxford commas in particular are a regular source of entertainment, especially the amusing images produced when the Oxford comma isn’t used. And while there certainly are academics among my friends, such posts definitely aren’t limited to that group.
But one linguistic phenomenon lands in the limelight every so often, and it’s a word you know well: the pronoun “they” — along with its derivatives “them” and “their.”
I don’t really expect that I have many–if any–regular contacts who are still prescriptivist about singular “they”; in my circles, it seems to be at or near universal acceptance. But this was still an interesting look into its history and usage.
Kirby Conrod, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington whose own personal pronouns are they/them, polls students each semester to assess their feelings about this specific usage of the word. Most have no objection; some, especially those who grew up using singular “they” with nonbinary friends, are simply confused — why would the professor ask about such a mundane word? “It’s really already hit the threshold of this critical mass,” Conrod says. “It’s part of the language enough that I don’t think you could squash it if you tried.”
Oh, the joys of clumsy headline writing. Here’s two versions of the same story. The first seemed really odd when I saw it come up in Google Reader. “Seattle Police Reportedly Kill Man With Knife” — as written, grammatically, that tells me that the police stabbed a man to death. But that can’t be right, can it? The article summary clears it up (mostly: one could make an argument that the summary states that the police killed a man by shooting a knife at him, but while that fits the grammar, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that someone would derive that meaning), as does the second article with a more well-written headline and summary, but it gave me a bit of a laugh.
An e-mail from Mom. Normally I don’t pass these kinds of things on (via e-mail or the web), especially when they’re already posted on Snopes (this one is listed as ‘Undetermined’), but this one had both Prairie and I in stitches (no pun intended) as we read through it. Lots of good arguments for the importance of clarity in writing in here!
A selection of choice writings taken from medical (and nursing!) notes!
- By the time he was admitted, his rapid heart had stopped and he was feeling better.
- Patient has chest pain if she lies on her left side for over a year.
- On the second day the knee was better and on the third day it had completely disappeared.
- She has had no rigors or shaking chills, but her husband states she was very hot in bed last night.
- The patient has been depressed ever since she began seeing me in 1983.
- I will be happy to go into her GI system, she seems ready and anxious.
- Patient was released to outpatient department without dressing.
- I have suggested that he loosen his pants before standing, and then, when he stands with the help of his wife, they should fall to the floor.
- The patient is tearful and crying constantly. She also appears to be depressed.
- Discharge status: Alive but without permission.
- The patient will need disposition, and therefore we will get Dr. Ward to dispose of him.
- Healthy-appearing, decrepit 69 year old male, mentally alert but forgetful.
- The patient refused an autopsy.
- The patient has no past history of suicides.
- The patient expired on the floor uneventfully.
- Patient has left his white blood cells at another hospital.
- Patient was becoming more demented with urinary frequency.
- The patient’s past medical history has been remarkably insignificant with only a 40 pound weight gain in the past three days.
- She slipped on the ice and apparently her legs went in separate directions in early December.
- The patient experienced sudden onset of severe shortness of breath with a picture of acute pulmonary edema at home while having sex which gradually deteriorated in the emergency room.
- The patient left the hospital feeling much better except for her original complaints.
- The patient is disabled with a wife from Portsmouth
- Uterus remains in place resting comfortably (after prolapse repair)
- Diagnosis: Claus-trophobia
- Comes to ED complaining of vaginal breathing.
- Patient arrived by avalanche
- Odor of alcohol on breast
- Patient stable all morning, in asystole
- Road Traffic Accident, back seat driver
- The lab test indicated abnormal lover function.
- The baby was delivered, the cord clamped and cut, and handed to the pediatrician, who breathed and cried immediately.
- Exam of genitalia reveals that he is circus sized.
- The skin was moist and dry.
- Rectal exam revealed a normal size thyroid.
- The patient had waffles for breakfast and anorexia for lunch.
- She stated that she had been constipated for most of her life until 1989 when she got a divorce.
- Between you and me, we ought to be able to get this lady pregnant.
- The patient was in his usual state of good health until his airplane ran out of gas and crashed.
- I saw your patient today, who is still under our car for physical therapy.
- The patient was prepped and raped in the usual manner.
- Examination reveals a well-developed male laying in bed with his family in no distress.
- Patient was alert and unresponsive.
- When she fainted, her eyes rolled around the room.
- The patient lives at home with his mother, father, and pet turtle, who is presently enrolled in day care three times a week.
- Bleeding started in the rectal area and continued all the way to Los Angeles.
- Both breasts are equal and reactive to light and accommodation.
- She is numb from her toes down.
- Exam of genitalia was completely negative except for the right foot.
- While in the emergency room, she was examined, x-rated and sent home.
- The patient was to have a bowel resection. However, he took a job as a stockbroker instead.
- The patient suffers from occasional, constant, infrequent headaches.
- Coming from Detroit, this man has no children.