In the News: Occupy Singular “They”
Occupy [fill in the blank]
The six-week-old Occupy Wall Street movement, the social protests that are mainly over economic disparity in the United States, have had some interesting intersections with the world of language (and reading). In “Occupying Word Street,” Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, examines the word occupy. He traces its use in protest language back to 1920 factory worker protests in Italy. Zimmer notes the “talismanic power of occupy” and indicates that the American Dialect Society could be considering the word a strong contender for its 2011 Word of the Year.
In an NPR “On the Media” interview, Zimmer discusses how the use of occupy has expanded in just a few short weeks: “It is this extremely useful word for the movement because as it spread to other cities, it can very easily just work as a kind of a template. Occupy blank, Occupy the-name-of-your-town-here. ... It’s this very flexible word now that’s filling many grammatical slots in the language.” As interviewer Brooke Gladstone points out, it has even made its way into the language of public marriage proposals. Michael Hill notes, “The same open-source nature of Occupy Wall Street that inspired Occupy London, Occupy Muncie and other protests worldwide makes it easy to co-opt the catchphrase for non-revolutionary aim” (Boston Globe). Though David Graeber, one of the organizers of the movement, is keen to maintain the “broad-based appeal” for this “community with all sorts of concerns” (MSN Money), “Occupy the Bar” and “Occupy My Couch” may not be what he has in mind.
Singular they is probably not at the top of Graeber’s list of concerns, either, but has seen some discussion in language and usage circles lately, with some urging writers and editors to adopt the usage. Emily Brewster, associate editor for Merriam-Webster, calls the usage of singular they “centuries old.” Blending example with counsel, Brewster says that “perhaps everyone should just do their best in the situations they find themselves in, even if their best involves they as a singular pronoun” (“The Awkward Case of ‘His or Her’” [video]). Jonathon Owen agrees. On his blog, Arrant Pedantry, he says that singular they is “the best solution for a common problem, and it’s time to stop wringing our hands over it and embrace it.” John McIntyre notes, “I no longer recast the everyone ... they sentences, and I have occasionally used the singular they in these operations. It’s instructive, particularly given how quickly readers are prepared to swoop down on errors (or perceived errors) and brandish them, that no one ever writes anymore to complain about a singular they” (You Don’t Say).
Image courtesy of David Shankbone.