I used to think that I would eventually get used to student papers littered with sentences like. “Each patient knows their chances are not good,” and, “An author at that time would be rejected if they had no sponsors.” Nope. Ain’t gonna happen.
The third-person plural pronoun referring to a singular antecedent has become a fixture in our postmodern babble. Too bad. Sometimes the result is insolubly confusing. “The applicant who convinces the judges of their argument’s vulnerability from either direction will become a finalist”; “the patient whose doctors understand that they need more sleep is in good hands”; “a coach whose players perform beyond their expectations is very lucky.”
Why must we put up with this skull-mush purée? For it seems that we must; not only do you and I commit such agreement errors all the time in conversation (where misunderstanding can be quickly corrected), but the arbiters in university English departments are increasingly decreeing that third-person agreement gaffes are correct—not tolerable, but the only way to go. One ambitious termigant in my own department has refused to address me civilly in the two years since I challenged her championing of the singular “they” in a public email. I hadn’t realized that the issue was so sensitive. Guess I’m lucky that I didn’t get slapped with a sexual harassment suit.
And that’s what it’s all about, you know. Maupassant once quipped that all stories are about either sex or death, and this one is about both. Our language must die so that sexually specific pronouns may never again be spoken. If the student or patient in our sentence is designated a “he”, then we have just committed a sexist crime; and if we choose “she” to privilege the female, the new god is still not propitiated. In fact, we may have made our situation worse, for our willingness to shift feminine in all generic cases could be misread as a gesture arising from that hotbed of quintessential sexism, chivalry. (Naturally, “she or he” runs into the same quagmire if we try to redeem the offensive order of “he or she”).
Equal time for the genders is no longer what’s at stake. The new objective is the utter annihilation of genders.
I could go on and on about what psychological perversion lies at the heart of such linguistic anarchy… but really, what lies at the heart of anarchy in any of its expressions? “Evil, be thou my good!” cries Satan in the masterpiece of that arch-sexist poet, John Milton. The anarchist desires to see the world helter-skelter. Up must go down, and in must go out. Creation must be undone to the point that no clue of its original design remains. The people who push such counter-programmatic programs have some kind of invincible grudge against life. Since they cannot remake it to be just the way they would have liked, they will satisfy themselves (so they think—for these people are never satisfied) with stealing the sense of life from everybody else. At least they will have accomplished something, merely by doing that. They will have forced everyone to share their single guiding insight as they shout from atop an infernal dunghill, “None of it means sh*t! Nothing! None of it!”
You think this is too far a reach from a single solecism? After all, as the academic advocates of illogic never tire of saying on this issue, Shakespeare also used “theys” with singular antecedents once or twice (as if the Shakespearean corpus were the meticulous relic of a single intelligence writing under minimal pressure and entrusting his work to the capable hands of infallible redactors). Well, you probably don’t watch this sort of degeneration happening every day from a dozen directions, as I do. A brick here, a brick there…. The edifice isn’t going to blow up: that’s not the plan. It’s going to collapse into rubble one fine day when one brick too many is removed from a critical wall.
That day, by the way, may already have arrived.