On the individual third person (why singular they isn’t enough)

On my “Language” page, I note that I am unhappy with the use of singular “they” when talking about a specific person (though always deferring to a person’s stated pronouns where I know them). I am fine with a generic or hypothetical person (e.g. “When an X does Y, they also experience Z.”) although I would tend to use “zie” in that context as well.

Every so often I come across language-y people defending “they” as the singular third-person pronoun, usually citing the above types of example (and agreement with “everybody/nobody/anybody/somebody” in hypothetical/generic statements) as reasons why English does not need a new set of pronouns, such as zie/hir/hir (the ones I habitually use nowadays). I knew there was something that sat wrongly with me about this, when I wrote that I, “dislike [singular they] when used as a personal pronoun (referring to some specific person)”.

In a recent conversation (well, fairly recent, it’s a few weeks ago now), I managed at last to put my finger on what the problem was that I had with singular they in a personal as opposed to generic context, and it is precisely that it takes away the individuality of the person to whom one refers. The closest analogy in terms of the effect it seems to have for me, would be something like instead of using female pronouns, a person would say something like, “When Sally goes to work, a woman takes the bus.” Sally becomes not an individual, but an example of “woman” and interchangeable with any other woman. She is not a “she” but a “they”. If I say, “When a person goes to work, they take the bus” it feels natural because it could be any person. But when Sally takes the bus, we are not discussing the behaviour of women, or people, in general. We are discussing Sally’s behaviour, which may or may not conform to other people’s behaviour patterns. Sally is not a part of any they, either as a behavioural mass or as a selected representative of behaviours. Sally is her own person.

Calling Sally “they” makes Sally into a representative of a class rather than an individual with her own motivations and autonomy. She becomes, instead of a person, a faceless member of a crowd.

Where “it” fails for being a dehumanising pronoun, “they” fails for being a depersonalising pronoun, removing the sense of a person as an individual. And that was the source (or maybe, a source) of the discomfort I had previously been unable to pinpoint regarding the singular “they” as a nonbinary/neutral gender singular pronoun.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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