Everyone who has read more than the odd science textbook is certain to have his very own poor grammar detection system. It’s like Spider-Sense in many ways, except that it’s far more intrusive and irritating, and of dubious usefulness too. It creeps into your psyche to the point where you want to run off with your swords and ,er, pens (they’re mightier, remember?) and impale the offenders under Shakespeare’s statue. If that’s too fanciful for your average grammar Nazi, it’ll at least corrupt your deliberately ignored prejudice circuits so that one misplaced semi-colon’ll transform your mental image of the author completely – from that of a suave, cool, smart, distinguished middle aged gentleman to that of a blithering village idiot.
But I’m not a grammar Nazi. What’s in your mind is just in your mind, and I don’t follow up on my instincts and go and troll a poorly written article’s comment pages. I’m also aware that if I slip up and do that, just once, I’ll be chopped into pieces by the nearest formatting Nazi around and fed to possessed typesetters. It’s only recently that I’ve learnt to resist the temptation to blast my readers with giant Walls of Text, and break my posts into palatably small paragraphs.
Having adequately asserted my middle-path grammar Nazism, I’ll return to the discussion on Bad-Grammar-Sensetm. Like all sneaky little bullies, it has its own authority figures whom it holds in utter reverence, and it doesn’t take rejection from them very well. If it spots a grammatical blooper in an article by someone it holds to be inferior, it whoops in joy and gloats in the satisfaction of making the world a slightly more readable, and ergo a better a place. But what if someone it believes to be the epitome of good writing hits it with what appears to be poor grammar? And to aggravate things, what if everyone around starts to do the same thing? The poor little thing finally discovers some self-consciousness and goes off to cry in a corner.
The first twinge came, inevitably, through a Facebook application. Facebook applications cannot pick up the genders of the people using them, because default privacy settings don’t let them. So how does an app called What does your crush think about you? say Sonya thinks she’s in love with you? when it neither knows your sex nor your orientation? It improvises and says instead, Sonya thinks they’re in love with you.
If that didn’t overload your bad grammar detection system with sheer cringeworthiness, you are lucky. Apparently so many grammarians have railed against this phenomenon, that there’s even a Wikipedia article on it. The Facebook app event was only a twinge, however, because Facebook apps aren’t particularly well known for being grammatically sound. It was when I started thinking through all occurrences of the singular they that I (or the part of me that the grammar Nazi had annexed) discovered something. It was everywhere.
Think about sentences that use everyone for instance. I think there are at least four in this blog post itself –so there’s no question of it being too arcane a term for discussion. Everyone is a term used when generalizing about a group of people, but as applied to a hypothetical single person, like the variable x in predicate logic. It’s a placeholder for a reference to a person independent of race, nationality, religion or sex, but today it simply cannot be used at all without contradictions. It’s no fault of the word itself – it’s sufficiently generic – the blame lies entirely with English’s inadequate set of pronouns.
You can either say his or you can say her but how do you stay faithful to your gender agnosticism? You can’t. Back in the good old days when women were chained to kitchen platforms in case they decided to trot off to work, you could get away with saying
Everyone likes to think he is happy.
with the he as an acceptable placeholder for a person of any gender. Not any more, in the world of aggressive gender equality that is today. He has got back its lost aura of masculinity and the modern mind refuses to accept it as ever referring to a woman without condescension. What’s the alternative then?
Everyone likes to think he or she is happy.
Fortunately, people quickly realized how supremely awkward this form sounded and dropped it soon enough. Some went back to the old system of using male descriptors exclusively, with lengthy disclaimers calling it purely a formatting convenience, no discrimination intended. Others found an alternative.
Everyone likes to think they are happy.
This form was acceptable in every way – the only group of people who it offended were the grammar Nazis, and that was a bonus. It slowly pervaded mass literature and through sheer pressure of ubiquity seeped into elite publications too. It unavoidably impinged on the consciousness of grammar scholars, and they reacted in one of two ways. Some of them predictably ranted and raved against the dilution of a noble language, and called for the heads of all practitioners of this sacrilegious form. A few however took it surprisingly well – they understood the limitations of the language – and even went on to become crusaders for its mainstream acceptance. Slowly, the ‘singular they’ spread through the English writing world until newer generations of grammar Nazis started to add involuntary exceptions in their own firewalls. Until Facebook, of course, when it all came crashing down.