English is an evolving language, as arguably is French, but the rightness or wrongness of word usage in English is all about usage. The venerable OED, my pinnacle for all things English language related is all about usage. Words mean what they do because that’s how people use them. End of story.
But, people use words wrong all the time. See, I just did it their. And they’re. Okay, I’ll stop, but you get my point. There’s usage and usage and that’s where Facebook comes into it.
Many of us have long lamented that English lacks a singular gender-neutral pronoun. Many have tried to address this (my personal favourites are zie/zir) but traction hasn’t really been found. Of late, “they/their” have been gaining ground (I know of a few folks who choose those as their pronouns of choice), but I and many others have trouble with using they that way.
“It is just plain wrong,” we say.
“I can choose my own pronouns,” they counter.
“Well, yeah, but…” we mumble.
“Besides,” they say, “Shakespeare did it. Chaucer did it. Jane Austen did it. If those writers can use ‘they’ as a singular, so can we.”
We shut up and admit defeat.
But, common usage is they key here, and lots of people just aren’t used to hearing “they” as a singular. But those days are now numbered.
As many people have noted, Facebook recently made it possible to choose from 51 different options when indicating gender (here’s a list of them, with some definitions). That’s way cool on its own, but quietly at the same time, Facebook also allowed users to select the pronouns by which they want to be called. There are only three – she, he and they.
The debate over an English gender-neutral singular pronoun is now over, and zie lost. They won.
I’m okay with that.