Sunday, November 4, 2012

They Is at Fault

Driving through Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I saw a billboard with a headline that looked like this:

Bold serif headline reading Ask your spouse if they feel loved
I couldn't get a photo in time, but take my word for it — this is what it said and what it looked like, down to the Times Roman Bold with they in bold italic. Below the headline was the URL

As I've written before, I'm ambivalent about the use of they as a gender-neutral pronoun. We definitely need one in this language of ours, and it's generally fine in spoken language, but when it gets into writing, they has a few problems, as this sentence shows.

First is just the nonsensicalness of it. In such an intimate question, the use of a plural is so jarring that  I almost thought I was supposed to ask my spouse if some other group of people feels loved. You know how we have a tendency to use an anonymous they when talking about authorities? (As in "They say we're young and we don't know/Won't find out until we grow.") They probably feel very unloved, since everyone is always talking about them behind their backs.

The next most prominent problem is the lack of agreement, not just between the noun and the pronoun, but between the pronoun and the verb. If they is standing in for the singular she or he, then why not use feels instead of feel?

Headline altered to read Ask your spouse if they feels loved
Nooo, not for a minute, right?

Maybe the billboard's sponsors should have reworded it, which is usually the best option:

  • Does your spouse feel loved? Ask.
  • Ask your spouse: Do you feel loved?
I kind of like that second one. It's very active and gets the message across more clearly. The Great Marriages folks are welcome to use it.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

I think your revisions are better not only because they avoid the awkward “they" but because they pose the question in the form of a question.