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Another Major Style Guide Has Accepted Singular ‘They’

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Singular they, or the use of the pronoun they to refer to one person, has been around for centuries. Both Chaucer and Shakespeare used it. It’s in the King James Bible. But since the early days of English grammar textbooks in the 19th century, it has been considered a mistake. For over 100 years, students have been urged to re-write sentences like “Everyone has their own ideas” with a singular pronoun: “Everyone has his own ideas.”

The problem with that fix is that it necessitates a decision on gender. What if you don’t have a specific person in mind? What if you don’t know the gender of the person you’re talking about? What if the person doesn't prefer a specific gender? The solution to that problem was for a long time the clunky “Everyone has his or her own ideas,” or changing the subject to a plural, as in “People have their own ideas.” In regular speech and informal writing, the singular they rolled on, becoming common enough that even the sharpest-eyed editors sometimes failed to catch it before print.

In 2015, The Washington Post became the first major publication to drop the prohibition on singular they from its official style guide. Now the Associated Press has done the same, albeit “in limited cases … when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

While the "Everyone has their own ideas" sort of singular they is commonly used for reference to a non-specific person of unknown gender, the AP guide also deals with the use of they as a pronoun for a specific person who chooses not to identify as male or female. In that case, the direction is to “use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.”

As always, “clarity is a top priority.” That’s the most important rule for any good style guide and for any good writing. A change to a style guide isn’t a change to the language, but a relaxing of a restriction in places that made clarity a little harder to achieve.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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