Author’s note: This is an attempt to explain Chapter 3 of my dissertation using the https://xkcd.com/simplewriter/ tool. This will be part of a (short) series explaining my dissertation research without jargon; it won’t include all chapters, just the ones real humans like to hear about.
Words like “he” and “she” are words that can talk about a person without saying their name over and over again. But when do you use “he” or “she,” and are those the only choices? I want to talk about times when the choice isn’t so clear, and times when you have more choices than those two. Part of this whole story is going to be about the way people think they talk about men and women, as well as how we can talk about someone who isn’t a man or a woman at all. The other part of this is going to be about times when we want to talk about a person without naming them as a man or a woman — either because it’s not important to the conversation, or because we don’t want to say it, or because that person really isn’t a man or a woman. So there are two pieces of the puzzle: how we see people and sort them into groups, and how we use language to talk about those groups (or choose not to talk about them).
Older books about English often say that “he” means a male, and “she” means a female, but when we start to look more carefully at how people actually use these words, it’s not so simple. People use “she” to talk about a boat or a car, and “he” to talk about a dog or other things that aren’t men and women. So it doesn’t make sense to think about these words as talking about ONLY men and women. It also doesn’t explain why some people will call a person “she” and other people will call that same person “he” (not even talking about what that person wants to be called yet). How can it be that different people will call the same person by different words, if the words “he” and “she” are supposed to be so clear?
There is one more thing to think about: many people are now using “they” to talk about a single person. Let’s call this THEY-ONE.
THEY-ONE can be used to talk about a single person if you don’t know WHICH single person you’re talking about. Like this:
(1) ANYONE can bring THEIR friend to the party.
In (1), THEY-ONE (here it’s “their”) is used in place of saying “anyone” twice. This use of THEY-ONE is very old, and you can find it in a lot of books going back hundreds of years. That’s fine. (2) and (3) are also used this way: you’re talking about a single person, but you don’t know for sure exactly which single person it is.
(2) THE PERFECT STUDENT always helps THEIR friend.
(3) A TEACHER should always be kind to THEIR students.
THEY-ONE can also be used to talk about a single person when you do know which person you’re talking about. Sometimes you know which person you’re talking about, but the person listening doesn’t know, like in (4). Sometimes you know who it is, but you don’t want to say if they’re a man or a woman, like in (5). Sometimes you know who it is, and they aren’t a man or a woman at all, like in (6).
(4) That student over there forgot THEIR bag.
(5) Tonight I’m going out with someone new… I hope THEY are nice.
(6) __ is writing THEIR book today.
In (4), it’s not really important whether the person is a man or a woman; THEY-ONE lets you talk about them without trying to guess. In (5), it might be important to you, but you might not want to tell your friend if you are going out with a guy or a girl yet — THEY-ONE lets you talk about them without giving it away. In (6), __ is your friend who is not a man or a woman, but is a different kind of person. THEY-ONE lets you talk about your friend without saying the wrong thing about them.
The uses of THEY-ONE in (4)-(6) are all normal, but (6) is the one where people say it sounds strange or confusing. (6) also seems to be the newest use of THEY-ONE.
What does it mean for an old word to have a new use? Language changes all the time, and this new use of THEY-ONE seems to be part of that. Language change is normal, and not bad. It’s not a sign that kids are hurting language. In fact, you might say (6) is strange but you say things like (4) or (5) all the time. The thing that makes (6) seem new or strange is not that it is different than (4) or (5), but that it asks you to think about a person who is really NOT a man or a woman.
When I studied THEY-ONE, I did it two ways. I’ll call the first one STUDY ONE. For STUDY ONE I asked a lot of people to talk to each other, and talk to me about each other. I tried to get these people to use words like “he” and “she” and “they” in a normal way, without thinking about it. After I talked to a lot of people, I counted up how many times each person used “he” or “she” or “they.” Some of the times, the people used THEY-ONE on their own — I had not asked them to, they just did. It seemed like THEY-ONE was a normal part of their language, and they used it a LOT. I found out that younger people used THEY-ONE more than older people in my study, which might mean that language is changing over time. (Why? Because older people use older forms, and when a lot of younger people start using a new word or form that sometimes means that the whole language is changing.) But STUDY ONE didn’t have enough people for me to say for sure that was what was happening. So I set up STUDY TWO.
In STUDY TWO, I asked a lot more people. STUDY ONE only had about 20 people, but STUDY TWO had over 700 people! I used computers to ask people to say if some words sounded normal or strange. Some of the words had THEY-ONE, but some didn’t. When I looked just at how people answered the THEY-ONE questions, I saw that it was still true: younger people answered that THEY-ONE was mostly fine, while older people said different things. (Some older people said it was just fine, but some said it sounded really strange.) In STUDY TWO I also asked people what they noticed about the questions I asked them. Many people said they noticed THEY-ONE (even though I didn’t tell them about it) and said that they think THEY-ONE is changing over time.
So it seems like the language is really changing over time, and THEY-ONE is becoming used by more and more people, even in uses like (6) where it is used with a name. And if you can use THEY-ONE to talk about a single person the same way you use “he” or “she,” then what does that mean for “he” and “she”?
Well, it means you have more choices. If you can call a person “they” without saying a wrong thing about them, then that means any time you use “she” you are doing it because you WANT to. Using “they” might work just as well a lot of times. And when people have more choices, it means probably they will do a lot more different kinds of things. When language gives you a choice of a few different ways to say the same thing, then you can use that choice to show different kinds of meaning beside the old meaning.
This is one part of the story. In the next part of the story, I will talk about some of the ways that people can (and do!) use the choice between “they” and other words to make more meaning.