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<   No. 1769   2007-11-30   >

Comic #1769

1 {scene: Head Death's desk}
1 Head Death: That's it. I've had it up to here with these shenanigans that end up with us having to send people back to life.
2 Head Death: {on phone} Put the word out. The next person who dies, anywhere, I want them processed instantly. No interaction. No second chance.
3 Head Death: {on phone} What?
4 Head Death: {on phone} I'm the head of a multiverse-spanning supernatural organisation! I can use whatever third person pronoun I like!

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Some people reading this comic would have flinched at the sentence:

The next person who dies, anywhere, I want them processed instantly.
Others would have passed silently by it with nary a thought about the grammar.

The issue here is about the word "them", which is usually defined as the plural accusative third person pronoun in English. Most English speakers have an intrinsic sense that words such as "they" and "them" refer to multiple people, not a single person.

The problem here is that if you want to refer to a single person, the only other widely accepted third person pronouns we have in English are "he", "she", and "it" (or "him", "her", and "it" in the accusative form). So you can either refer to this unknown person as a he, a she, or an it.

Referring to people as "it" is pretty much universally frowned upon. As is referring to a female as "he" or a male as "she".

So if it is not known if the person in question is male or female, or the speaker does not wish to identify if the person in question is male or female, what is one to do?

In this age of struggles for equality and against discrimination, this is not a simple question, and many people have strongly held opinions about such issues. The possible solutions fall into four categories:

  1. Use "he" as a neutral pronoun. This practice enjoyed widespread usage some years ago, but is precisely the style of usage that supporters of sexual equality have fought against, because it carries an implication that being male is somehow the default or norm for a person. Some people see this argument as ridiculous, but the ones who think it's fine to refer to anyone as "he" are not the ones being offended.
  2. Use inclusive two-way constructs such as "he/she" or "he or she". This is clumsy, and while it appears with some frequency in writing, nobody actually speaks this way. It also raises the potentially divisive issue of what order to place the two more specific pronouns.
  3. Use newly invented neutral singular pronouns. There are many examples of such neologisms, such as "sie", "ey", "zie", and a bunch of others. The problem with these is that there are many such invented words, championed by several distinct and relatively small groups of people. The new terms remain unfamiliar and confusing to the vast majority of English speakers, and will almost certainly never catch on to become general usage. Such terms have been being invented since (at least) the 19th century, and not one has caught on yet.
  4. Use "they" in a singular context as a neutral pronoun. This one is frowned upon by prescriptive grammarians, who insist that "they" can only refer to a plural number of people, never to a single person.
The thing is, among all these options, the one that most people actually use is "they". And nobody ever misunderstands it when the context implies a single person. Nobody complains about it being sexist. It's short and concise and doesn't have any issues with word ordering. And people know what it means.

The only thing wrong with using "they" as a singular third person pronoun is that some people consider it to be poor grammar. Compared to all the other issues with the alternatives, why is there even still a question about this?

The good thing is that common English usage seems to be heading in the direction towards full acceptance of "they" as a singular neutral pronoun. Lots of people use it this way already. More will do so over the next few decades. Everyone understands it. The trend is already here. Eventually the current generation of grammar prescriptivists will die out and we'll finally have the solution we can all live with.

Further reading:

2018-07-17 Rerun commentary: A few years down the track and the situation is either similar all round or slowly moving more towards general acceptance of singular "they", as far as I can tell. I think fewer people today would blink at usage of singular "they" in general writing than a decade ago. Though given the vagaries of the Internet, there are no doubt some people who object even more strongly than anyone did ten years ago.

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