Anyone who’s attempted to learn English as a foreign tongue can tell you how weirdly different it is from other languages. I’d like to focus on just a few of these absurdities, prompted by the recent decision of the American Dialect Society to award their Word of the Year to the singular they.
To refer to yourself, you use I; to refer to a group you’re part of, it’s we. The English language has this sorted. However, a third party group is given the pronoun they, while a third party that’s not part of a group is given he, she or it. These latter three pronouns are often fine to use, but there can be problems.
Supposing you’ve received an anonymous letter. How would you refer to the author? It would be inappropriate to say it because it wasn’t written by an animal nor an inanimate object. Similarly, it’s unwieldy to keep saying he or she. So like a trooper, they steps up to the challenge.
To compound matters, there are people who are not necessarily transgender but who identify as a mixture of both genders or as neither, and therefore it would be incorrect to write he, she or it. Again, they volunteers for duty.
So on the whole, they fills the gender-neutral gap in our language, and it has done for hundreds of years. Yet it falls foul of another uniquely English grammar quirk.
Let’s use the verb to run. Substituting the to for a pronoun gives us: I run, you run, we run, but he, she or it runs. So when we use they as a singular, it ought to be correct to say they runs, but it sounds wrong.
Why, then, hasn’t anyone come up with with a suitable substitute? Folk have tried, but none have caught on. The Guardian gives a detailed account of the search for the magic word while the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provides a guide about using personal pronouns.
If you’re unsure about word usage, you could do worse than follow Hannah McCall. She’s a qualified proofreader who writes about the trickier points of English in her blog, yet in an accessible manner. I’m also aware she can probably find a dozen holes in this entry alone.
But I don’t want you to go away feeling that English is the worst language in the world. After all, we have some words that no other language has.
One of these is serendipity, when you make a beneficial or pleasing find by chance. Another biggie is trade-off, which won an award a few years ago as it’s so difficult to translate. It’s not a mere compromise, but where you exchange one quality for another, while understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each.