The Ubiquitous They

by Ted Kyle

"They" is winning. Who are "they"? No, the question should be, "What is ‘they'?" If that sounds weird, it's because I am speaking of the word-the sex-neutral plural pronoun "they." In our English language, "he, him, his" and "she, her, hers" are sex-specific pronouns, but the plurals "they" and "them" are neutral. So what, you ask? This is pretty basic, boring stuff-but it's the stuff language is based on, and pronoun usage is changing, and changing our language in the process. And as for boring, what about the heat generated by the TNIV-Today's New International Version? Is that boring? Believe me, the topics are vitally related. You see, "they," a plural pronoun, has been taking over the territory rightfully belonging to "he, him, she, and her." And it's been doing so because people who speak and write English have become afraid of offending our hearers or readers, by continuing to use established forms of communication. To be blunt, we're afraid of raising the charge of "male sexist" against ourselves if we continue to use the generic "he," "him," or "his" according to long-accustomed usage. Critique this sentence with me: "Every Christian should have a Bible-it is his birthright." Here, "his" represents all Christians-male and female. Just a few years ago, I doubt if you would have found anything odd or out of place about that usage. Today, a lot of us are mildly uncomfortable with it. We want to say "it is his or her birthright." Nothing wrong with that-but it does represent a change in our use of language. Here is another-and there is something wrong with this one: "Anyone can do it, if they know how." Did you notice the change from singular subject to plural pronoun? That is a no-no, according to all the rules for grammar-at least the old rules we all grew up with. Well, perhaps only crusty old grammarians (like myself) will get irked by the misused "theys" we run across increasingly. But when you start to fuzz over the sex-distinctive usages in the Bible, then lots of people get excited-and rightly so. We need to vigilantly guard against tampering with God's Word. (Of course, that Word was given to us in Greek and Hebrew, not King James English.) God is a Father-figure, not a Father-and-Mother figure, and He spoke primarily (though not exclusively) to men, who were expected in turn to pass the messages along to their wives and families. That is the way it was, and no amount of feminine re-engineering of our culture will change that. Nevertheless, our everyday language, our "Koine English," if you will, is changing, and we need to recognize that. Especially if we want to be heard. Especially if we want to make the Word of God relevant to our younger generations. We don't want half of our population-the female half-thinking the Bible is not their Book. Neither do we want them to lose the importance of fatherhood and their heavenly Father. It's a big issue, and it will only get bigger. Our language is changing. Our challenge is to present the unchanging Word of an unchanging God to a new culture. But then, preachers have always been called as interpreters!