There is much to be upset about these days, as double-word triggers will attest: Haliburton’s contracts, Bennett’s slots, aircraft photo-ops, tax cuts. Even Mother Nature seems pissed off, serving up a reluctant spring on the heels of a dastardly winter war, hurling tractor-trailers across the Midwest, then springing for a lunar eclipse only to refuse to pull back the thick cloud curtain. Indeed, one need look no further than the pages of this publication to find reasons to spew invective, to rant, to rail.
And yet, linguistically speaking, the sounds on the street, in coffee shops and inside shared apartments suggest we are doing otherwise. In those places, we are embracing verbal lethargy. We are not quite mute but certainly are muzzled. In the conversations in which we express disapproval we have become complacent, letting one word reign supreme. And it’s not “ohm” coming from the new-fangled urban yogis schlepping mats that has become the mantra. It’s they.
When we get really upset about something, especially involving someone we don’t know, we are apt to say they without ever clarifying who they are.
A typical scene might go something like this: You’re up late watching Sue Johanson on the Sunday Night Sex Show distill the finer applications of Saran Wrap, and in walks your roommate. Glancing toward an image on the TV screen she launches into a tirade about sex education: “Why don’t they do more of this?” Or it may happen while hearing Weekend Edition’s Scott Simon give the latest rundown on Bush and North Korea. The topic has worn your patience so you sigh, then moan, then rhetorically lament, “Now what are they up to?” Or maybe it’s after midnight and you’re bound for home on the F train home only to find it rerouted—again. “Great,” a fellow would-be passenger intones, “What are they doing now?”
No matter what linguistic heavyweights William Safire and Noam Chomksy have to contribute, the word that seems to be passing everybody’s lips is a pronoun. And it’s a namby-pamby pronoun at that. They lacks the brazenness of me, misses the collective spirit of we and leapfrogs over the identity politics of he or she. Alas, they is flaccid, worse, it’s the sit-on-the-sidelines victim’s pronoun. But what the word lacks in luster it makes up for in popularity and sheer volume of use.
To be sure, using they can be very convenient. Consider the reasons we are drawn to the word:
Reason one: It allows us to continue to talk about something even when the details are a little fuzzy. It’s a boldface refusal to let a few ornery details like, say, knowing who or what it is we’re discussing get in our way.
Reason two: It’s a way of distancing ourselves. They are not the same as we and they most definitely are not me. Instead, they are doing something and I cannot possibly be responsible for it.
Reason three: It’s a way of expressing disapproval. It’s so much easier to clamor, “They have done wrong,” meaning those big, bad, people over there, than to identify who is actually accountable. The word gives us an excuse to be passive even while grandstanding.
Reason one is convenient. Reason two adds a sense of relief. Reason three makes us feel like a bad-ass, albeit a lazy bad-ass.
As handy as the uses of they are, each one takes us down a slippery slope where thinking starts to erode, which is not exactly where we want to be at the end of the day.
So the question that remains is not why but who. Who are they? Network producers? Political spin-istas? Fox’s hyperbolic, balding, pasty-faced men?
Because we don’t say who or what we mean by they, we cede the right to define events—as well as our lives—to corporations, promoting brands, and politicians, pushing absurdity. Let’s face it: “Coalition of the Willing,” however fictitious, cannot be taken down with an impotent they. Our disapproving vagueness starts to morph into implicit approval.
This is not a matter of poor grammar, quibbling over the improper use of a part of speech. It’s about something much more than that. It’s about acknowledging that language can have precision. It’s about realizing, in the case of media complaints, that stories and information do not merely appear on TV or zip across the radiowaves but are the result of decisions made by real people living in the same real world that we also inhabit.
And, it’s about lost opportunity. Depending on the situation and the medium that is in question, there is an array of nouns from which we can select. For starters, there are the run-of-the-mill media words: producers, actors, networks, advertisers, cinematographers, directors, animators, and the ever-loved (though ever-stale joke) key grips. All of these words represent actual people. We need not merely accept the media messages around us as inevitable—something they chose to put on. Instead, we can applaud, criticize, opt to make something better or choose to walk away—and may do all of these in the course of a single day. It’s our choice, not just theirs.
Aside from this somewhat mundane category of nouns, there is a slew of more creative names and titles we can give to the objects of our dissatisfaction. To continue to use media as an example, we can say Rupert Murdoch, Les Moonves, Steve Case, Lowry Mays, and Michael Eisner, just as we can say varlet, harpy, hobgoblin, dullard, and rapscallion.
Names are potent—so let us use them.
Communication is difficult enough without complicating it with hapless references and dwelling in ambiguity. Now is the time to marshal our complacent tendencies and combat word apathy. We must name names—and we must do so with linguistic gusto. Lest we abdicate the right to live by our own terms, passively accepting what others, who are less creative, dictate, let us revive the grand traditions of the clever insult, the witty putdown, and the well-spoken complaint.
Shelley Pasnik is a senior researcher at the Center for Children and Technology and the independent producer of The PBS Parents Guide to Children and Media.