A few weeks back, my fellow 7PM writer Daniel Burt was knocking up the day’s web poll. With a recent ‘Undercover Boss’ appearing that night, the question was:
Would you recognise your boss if he or she turned up in disguise?
Dan hesitated. The professional writer in him didn’t want to admit it, but he’d hit a modern stumbling block.
It was that phrase, ‘he or she’, bogging down the middle of the question. It’s a double-whammy pronoun referring to a hypothetical person of either of the two most common sexes.
Dan could see it was clunky. Plus, there’s not much space to play with in the Web Poll graphic. And the Web Poll is not a particularly formal environment.
A thought formed in his head. Should he risk the wrath of the grammatical gods and sneak in a colloquial ‘they’ instead of the formal ‘he or she’?
Would you recognise your boss if they turned up in disguise?
This was a quandary that never existed in the olden days. ‘He’ alone used to stand in for either sex. So the question…
Would you recognise your boss if he turned up in disguise?
…could still be talking about a female boss, even though it doesn’t sound that way.
And that, of course, was the problem. ‘He’ might have cut the mustard in 1950, but that would be the only thing ‘He’ would have been seen doing in the kitchen. ‘She’ was busy slaving over the bucket and mop. Times changed, and She, understandably, wanted to be heard.
And so we developed ‘he or she’. But as She burnt her bra with joy, ‘he or she’ begat ‘him or her’ and ‘his or hers,’ and readers of all sexes were left to slog through pages plagued with pronouns.
Writers tried abbreviating it to he/she, but that slash was a disruption, like a wacky record-scratch sound effect in the middle of a Gregorian chant. Some even tried alternating - first a ‘he,’ and in the next instance, a ‘she’ – but that just left everyone feeling excluded fifty percent of the time.
That’s where we’ve been stuck for maybe thirty years.
But hey, that’s just the written word. In conversation, who could be bothered with all those hes and shes, hisses and herses?
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for the word ‘they’ (and its sisters, ‘them’ and theirs’).
‘They’ has been quietly achieving great things for years. Where a conversation would threaten to grind to a halt while a speaker recited a slew of gender-inclusive pronouns, ‘they’ would swoop in like Superman to save the day:
If anyone has any questions, they should come to me.
Just four letters replacing all those pronouns and unspeakable slashes. Like an illegal migrant worker, ‘they’ would quietly get down to work, make the point, move things along, and exit with a handful of dirty cash, while all involved turned a blind eye to its grammatical illegitimacy.
But what does ‘they’ receive in return? Nothing but outrage and frowns from grammatical pedants, and red crosses from teachers, because it’s “not correct”! The sentence calls for a singular pronoun, they cry. ‘They’ is plural!
I know this type well. Former Defence Minister Kim Beazley once made an ad for the Army. YouTube has let me down here - I’ll have to describe it. Kim’s opening line went something like, “If an Australian wants to join the Army, they can visit an Army Recruitment Centre” or whatever he was banging on about.
My Dad, a grammatical purist, spurted tea across the room. Such atrocious use of ‘they’ by a Minister of the Crown! The line should have been “If an Australian wants to join the Army, he or she can visit an Army Recruitment Centre.” If Kim Beazley ever had Dad’s vote, he lost it that day.
But thousands wouldn’t have noticed, let alone cared. And since then, if anything, ‘they’ has only become more common.
How many times have we seen contestants with names like Chlomidia on reality TV shows like Big Brother declare “That’s just how I am, and if someone doesn’t like it, well, THEY just have to deal with it!” (Which is bogan for “I choose to mask my failings by being a rude, arrogant cow.”)
Did any viewer object? Did anyone call the station and say “I don’t like her, but I am a singular, not a plural, so I feel excluded and don’t know what to do?”
Barely anyone. Network records show that the only caller was my Dad declaring that Chlomidia had just lost his vote.
And so, back to Dan, writing the web poll. His deep blue eyes beseeched approval from his fellow writers. We tossed around many of the issues discussed above. I told my Kim Beazley story and everyone said “Hmm.”
And then we called it. We went with ‘they’. You can expect to see more of it as a house style (if anything on this site can be said to have ‘style’).
But we didn’t just call it for Dan, or for our website in general. WE CALLED IT ON BEHALF OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE!
That’s the great thing about English. There are broad rules, but there are no official authorities. There is no Proper English Parliament, and the only power held by the grammar pedants is their ability to talk in authoritative tones and spurt tea across loungerooms. If something isn’t working, WE, THE PEOPLE, CAN CHANGE IT.
We don’t want ‘he’ standing in for both sexes, and clearly we can’t be bothered saying ‘he or she’ and ‘his or hers’ in every second sentence. So it’s time to bring ‘they,’ ‘them’ and ‘their’ in from the cold. To thank them for their unappreciated singular work over the years, and crown them with full grammatical citizenship.
So next time you’re facing the ‘he/she’ dilemma, go with ‘they’. If anyone tells you it’s wrong, tell THEM it’s correct now. If THEY argue, send THEM to this page, where THEY shall see that we called it on behalf of English speakers everywhere.
And if someone doesn’t like it, well, THEY just have to deal with it.
This ruling does NOT mean it’s open slather on confusion between ‘their,’ ‘there,’ and ‘they’re’, for which there remains NO EXCUSE. Find a dictionary and study up!
Did you know? A source tells me teachers aren’t allowed to use red crosses these days because it hurts the kids’ feelings. You either get a green tick, or, well, no idea that you got it wrong.
And you wonder how we end up with people like Chlomidia.
The opinions expressed in The 7PM Side Project blog do not necessarily reflect those of The 7PM Project or the Ten Network.