Anyone in my line of work will find some quirks, solecisms, or barbarisms more irritating than others. The particulars vary from writer to writer and from teacher to teacher, but we all have some little thing or things that will send us to Defcon One.
I’m not immune. One of my personal betes noires is the use of the singular “they.” Now in fact, we can trace this at least as far back as Chaucer, and in recent decades, the usage strikes many as a useful means of avoiding sexist sentence construction, replacing such choices as “s/he,” “he or she,” or the alternation of the masculine and feminine pronouns. (And for those of you keeping score, the generic “he” as a prescriptivist “rule” can really only be traced to 18th-C. efforts to “ascertain” the language.)
I get that, and I’m aware of the foolishness of trying to fix (as in “nail down”) the language in such a manner. Johnson recognized that; dare I do less? Still, the singular “they” grinds my gears, and I’ll mark it when I see it. (And I likewise know that my preference for the generic “he” likewise irritates some readers. Those readers, of course, are welcome to write their own blogs.)
What brought all this to mind this evening was my preparation for tomorrow’s Early Brit Lit class. We’ll be looking at Wyatt the Elder and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. I was refreshing my memory by reading one of Wyatt’s poems that means much to me:
They Flee From Me
They flee from me that sometime did me seekWith naked foot, stalking in my chamber.I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,That now are wild and do not rememberThat sometime they put themself in dangerTo take bread at my hand; and now they range,Busily seeking with a continual change.Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwiseTwenty times better; but once in special,In thin array after a pleasant guise,When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,And she me caught in her arms long and small;Therewithall sweetly did me kissAnd softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”It was no dream: I lay broad waking.But all is turned thorough my gentlenessInto a strange fashion of forsaking;And I have leave to go of her goodness,And she also, to use newfangleness.But since that I so kindly am servedI would fain know what she hath deserved.