A couple days ago on Twitter, seemingly out of nowhere, actor James Woods decided to issue a decree:
Please join me in using proper grammar, syntax, and spelling. The correct pronoun usage in the English language is “he” for a singular male and “she” for a singular female. “They” is used for the plural of either males, females, or both. Don’t be bullied by hare-brained liberals.
Presumably, the voice of Hades from Disney’s Hercules then sat back down in his arm chair, fired up a new rerun of House of Mouse and screamed at the ceiling for an hour for looking down on him.
This should have been, at most, an irrelevant tweet because no one cares. I took a class in college focused solely on grammar where a fellow student decided to make the entire class about how using the pronoun “they” was a liberal agenda and an erasure of prescriptivist grammatical thought. Our highly conservative professor even told her to chill. In short, the argument is as dumb today as it was then.
You know who’s also privy to how dumb that conversation is? The damn Dictionary. As the Internet flocked to share and support this strange call for grammatical purity deemed necessary by the man who lent his voice work to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Dictionary.com came in with some stone cold facts.
Dragged by the Dictionary. Savage. Turns out if Woods wants to go all prescriptivist in the face of “making grammar great again,” it would behoove him to do a little backtracking. As Dictionary.com points out, “they” has been used quite commonly as a singular pronoun, from Shakespeare to Jane Austen. But as we all know, history is #FakeNews. There were dinosaurs, then Jesus, then we moved to America.
In reality, it turns out that James Woods, who you may know from six episodes of Ray Donovan, isn’t much an authority on grammar. And if you want to call someone “they,” it’s a lot better than a lot of other things you could say.
As Jonathon Owen wrote for Arrant Pedantry, “We can use our language to reflect outdated and harmful stereotypes, or we can use it to treat others with the respect they deserve. I know which one I choose.” Mr. Owen is a linguist with a Master’s degree in the field. I’m going to assume they know exactly what they’re talking about.