E Pluribus Unum: Relief for a Pedant

uncle sam

… If applied to everyone, “they” would complete the leveling-up progress of equal dignity that “you” started centuries ago.

(Teresa M. Bejan, “What Quakers Can Teach Us About the Politics of Pronouns,” NYTimes, 11-16-19)

1. A person has to register early if he wants to vote.
2. A person has to register early if he or she wants to vote.
3. A person has to register early if they want to vote.

As a half-woke pedant I’ve stuck with version 2 until now, but version 3 is winning.

The history provided by Professor Bejan helps me. She notes that English nobles could call themselves “we.” (The Queen still does.) At that time “thou” was the proper singular, so commoners were required to address a noble as plural “you,” since he (or she) considered himself (or herself) to be more than one. (The Duke of York still does, though he “let the side down.”)

The Quakers leveled down by “thou-ing everyone, including blue-bloods, but English eventually went the other way and leveled up. I got to be you, and you got to be you, like our blood was blue, too.

The fact that plural “you” crossed over to singular furnishes a respectable precedent for the migration of “they” to neutered singularity. It relieves one of the cross of pedantry they have borne. They’re chiefest concern now — our chiefest concern, or mine if I’m humble — is to get comfortable with the contracting of future “they-all” into “th-all,” where it will team up with “y’all” as a disambiguator for them, whoever it is.

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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