The Royal They

For many years I have been instructed that the term “his or her” is the only proper pronoun for singular indefinite subjects, and to use plural pronouns such as them or they is completely erroneous. I’ve never agreed with this notion, for several of the reasons Yagoda mentions, among them the awkward pronoun s/he, or the struggle to pick a specific gender. Another reason I’d prefer to use plural pronouns, is because in certain cases I see it as being correct. For instance, when using each or every before the subject. The words signify individual, separate people, but the problem with those words is that they are only used to talk about more than one person. Saying, “I woke up this morning and made coffee” has a completely different connotation than, “I woke up each morning and made coffee.” The former sentence specifies a single day, while the latter is talking about a series of consecutive days. It makes perfect sense to use a plural pronoun when speaking of subjects that carry the precedents each, every, or another word implying multiples. Another case to use acceptable plural pronouns for single subjects involves transgenderism and gender fluidity. Janet Mock, a transgender rights activist, prefers using “they,” to avoid assigning someone an incorrect gender pronoun. This is a safe fallback for someone who has not had the chance to ask which pronoun the person would like, and is not as inhumane as saying “it.” However, if they do have the chance to (politely) ask the person in question which pronoun they would prefer, it should be clarified rather than assumed.

Yagoda’s mention of the “royal we” immediately brought to mind the scene from The Big Lebowski (1998). In the movie, Jeff Bridges’ character was supposed to conduct an errand by himself, and is called out when he admits that he dropped off the money with someone else. To avoid punishment, Bridges quickly backtracks to say that he meant the royal we, a term virtually unheard of in today’s world, especially for Americans.

I was also surprised to notice Yagoda’s absence of the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail in his dissection of the word it. In an iconic scene, the protagonists run across the Knights Who Say Ni, and discover that mention of the word it causes the Knights great distress. Perhaps this stems from a desire to construct better-worded sentences? We may never know.


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