July 19, 2023


I occasionally write a comment in response to an opinion piece from The New York Times. My thoughts may have little influence, but it is satisfying to express a strong opinion or point out a fact or idea not considered in the original essay.

I was frustrated today that, after reading “Is ‘Yo’ the Gender-Neutral Pronoun We’re Looking For?” by linguistics professor John McWhorter, I was not given the opportunity to leave a comment. Was the essay so controversial that the Times didn’t want to encourage a fight among its readers? Is Professor McWhorter too busy to be bothered with reader feedback? I’m not sure how often opinion pieces in the Times do not support reader comments, but never before have I wanted to write a response but was not given the opportunity to do so.

McWhorter correctly notes that the lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun in English creates problems and that various neologisms have been offered to solve the problem. None has caught on. Actually, I don’t think “yo” is the solution. (Is there a declension for “yo” or is it the same in every case and number?) Actually, English has a gender-neutral pronoun: “it.” No one seems comfortable using that pronoun to refer to people, however. (There is no distinctive plural of “it,” of course, so this might be considered a problem.) I have often thought that we should refer to God as “It” if we truly believe that the deity is sexless. One could make a case for “They” to refer to the Trinity. But I digress.

McWhorter mentions the use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, suggesting that this usage might have a bright future. Frankly, it drives me crazy. I have often encountered such a “they” without a trigger warning that it is intended to refer to a single person. I then search the preceding text to figure out who are the persons “they” refers to.

Well, the Times hasn’t let me rant, but there are other venues for comment.


  1. Hello --- I am a user of singular "they," and being transgender I know many others. (I know some who prefer "it", too, but that is another matter entirely.) It is a sticking point for lots of folks.

    I usually point out that singular "they" already has a well-attested usage in English; it's used to refer to a person of unknown gender; e.g., "Somebody left their umbrella. My elementary grammar textbook disparaged this idea, as did yours, but practically everyone I've met uses it this way in informal speech, simply because it's less unwieldy (wieldier?) than "his or her" or similar constructs. Recently the AP stylebook condoned and recommended this usage.

    To the common objection "singular antecedents should have singular pronouns," I would point out that Latin and German, English's closest linguistic relatives, use identical words for both a singular and plural pronoun.

    I hope you find this helpful. I, a lifetime lover of mathematics, discovered your blog through the Wiki article on Armstrong numbers, and I appreciate your research and writing.

    1. I am sympathetic. I actually think we should invent some new words, but both the invention and the popularization are difficult. The acceptance of “Ms.” is encouraging. Neologisms, however, need both champions and reasons to abandon ad hoc forms that violate conventional rules.


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