In the big scheme of things, using they as a singular pronoun is forgivable. Heck, it barely registers on the “I should care about this” index.
But when a company worth over $300 billion uses it, I take notice. The picture below is what came up in my notifications today.
It’s not the first time that I’ve gotten this notification. (A one-friend Facebook network would be a joyless existence indeed.) But it is the first time that I’m writing about it.
Every time I see them used to refer to a friend of mine—a friend who could easily be referred to as a him or a her—the grammar nerd inside me winces.
I hear what you’re thinking. “Well, of course you would say that—you run a language services company!”
But believe it or not, it doesn’t actually doesn’t bother me all that much. At least not in speech or informal writing. (I must care a little, though, because I’ve written about the singular they before.)
If Facebook can hyper-target an advertising audience, then the company surely knows if my friend is a man or a woman.
Still, there’s something about Facebook using they as a singular pronoun (actually, them) that strikes me as odd. What is it? Well, it’s the fact that the singular them is used even though the person’s identity is known, both to me and to Facebook. And this runs contrary to the usage that you’re probably most familiar with. (See examples below.)
I would love to know if this wording within Facebook notifications was intentional or just an oversight. It’s certainly not for lack of data.
If the social giant is able to hyper-target an advertising audience on a never-before-seen level of granularity—20-year-old Latino anthropology majors in SoCal who like Drake, BMX, and shellfish do shop at Target, it turns out!—then the company knows whether my friend is a man or a woman.