They/Them/Their: An Unnecessary Controversy

Recently, University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, has received attention after refusing to use the singular they as an alternative pronoun to she or he. Peterson claims that the push for the singular they results from authoritarian attitudes espoused by “social justice warriors” on the political left. He has also said that pressure to use the singular they amounts to a threat to “the foundation of Western civilization.”

Not only are Peterson’s comments unkind and demonstrative of resistance to the changing social and linguistic landscapes (landscapes that are, quite honestly, always shifting and evolving), they are also incorrect. The singular they has been in use in the English language since at least the 14th century and by writers such as William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Walt Whitman. Not until the 18th century did it fall out of fashion with grammarians, but even so it has never fallen out of common usage.

Despite Dr. Peterson’s concerns, there aren’t any real dangers associated with using the singular they (although refusing to use it might result in your office door being glued shut by people who feel disenfranchised). The English language as we know it will not shatter into a million tiny pieces as a result of addressing someone by their preferred pronoun (see, I just did it and we’re all still here!) There will be no linguistic apocalypse; I can’t make any promises about any other kinds of apocalypses looming on the horizon, however. You’ll have to seek comfort for those troubles elsewhere.

 

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