Singular 'they' and Programming Pronouns

Despite little formal English education (I moved around a lot and kept missing, say, "parts of speech" when switching schools), I grew up with a passion for English and am a natural prescriptionist.¹ Which is to say, I grew up firmly believing there's correct English and incorrect English. (Don't get me started on "try and," you Philistines.) I suspect this is both nature — an intrisic part of my personality dictated by my genetics — and nurture: my parents were great believers in right and wrong language. I remember hearing about someone defending using some phrase ("the reason is because," perhaps) to my father by claiming it was "common usage." His characteristically stentorian response was:

"Common" exactly what it is.

(Sense #7 in Collins if the joke isn't as clear in writing as it would be in speech.)

There's just one problem with being an English prescriptionist: That isn't how English works. At all. I mean, not even a little teensy bit. English is and ever has been a work in progress. The English we speak now is not the English of Shakespeare; the English of Shakespeare is not the English of Caucer; the English of Caucer is not the English of, say, the epic poem Beowulf, which starts:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

In modern (though still poetic) English:

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

The original was only somewhere around 1,000 to 1,300 years ago folks. And yet, unrecognizable to modern eyes.

All of which meanderings bring me to my topic: "They" is a singular pronoun (as well as being a plural). If you have a problem with that, get over yourself.

Like I did.

When I first encountered singular "they" used for a specific person nearly 30 years ago I was aghast at the idea. The prescriptionist in me rose up to declaim "they"'s immortal status as a plural.

Except it wasn't only a plural. Not now, not then, not long, long before then. Consider the following:

The new school-teacher arrives to-day. They should arrive by mid-day.

That's from the 1700s (sadly I don't recall where I read it). Using "they" as a gender neutral singular is hundreds of years old. Yes, convention was to switch to "he" or "she" once the gender of the person was known (that is, the seeming-gender, in those binary times), but the fact remains that using "they" in the singular is nothing new.

But was that some new 1700s fashion, like the robe à la française? Nope. The OED traces singular "they" all the way back to 1375. It's older than using singular "you" outside of formal situations. Do you still say "thou" and "thee"? I didn't think so. (But apologies to any of my Quaker readers; peace, Friends.)

Some will tell you that "he" is the gender-neutral singular. Oh, those modernists! Those progressives! Those convention-wreckers! Using "he" in the example above only became prescribed style in the mid to late 18th century, instigated (according to John McWhorter) by a primer by Anne Fisher in 1745 because she thought all "real" languages had to follow the way Latin and Greek did things.

"But the new thing is using it when we know the gender!" I hear someone at the back say. To which I say two things: 1) Do you? And 2) So what? Let's say that this is different from the previous use of singular "they". What then?

Same thing: Get over yourself. Like I did. It took me something like five years and a bit of maturity to come around, somewhere late last century, but I did. If basic good manners isn't a sufficient reason for you to use the pronoun someone identifies with, hopefully the etymological arguments above are.

Which brings us to programming, as this is primarily a programming blog. The impetus for this post came while I was creating a "user" table. I was all full of myself for having just "full name" rather than "first name" and "last name" when I realized I had no provision for specifying pronouns. (In my defense, I didn't ask for gender, either, as there was no reason to; but there is reason to ask for pronouns: so the system can address someone properly, and show people looking at an account how to address them.) So the programming part of this post is: Do that. I'm off to find out what entails. If it were just for people looking at a profile, a simple "pronouns" field would do it. But for system use, you'll probably need more information. I'm off to go into this in more detail and will post a follow-up, but so far I've identified:

  • Singular subjective: "he", "she", "they", ...
  • Singular objective: "him", "her", "them", ...
  • Possessive: "his", "hers", "theirs", ... As in "These thoughts are theirs."
  • Possibly the "possessive determiner" (get me with the big terminology): "his", "her", "their", ... As in "Robin and Leslie announced their engagement."

Happy coding!

¹ If you're wondering, English grammar is generally acknowledged formally as descriptionist rather than prescriptionist. It describes accepted usage, rather than prescribing it. (Though naturally if you look at any group of academics you're going to find contrarians. They're a bit like people that way.)

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