What Does "to Each Their Own" Mean?
“To each their own” is an English idiom signifying that everyone is entitled to his or her own preferences. The phrase is grammatically incorrect because the singular pronoun “each” conflicts with the plural pronoun “their,” so many people use the version “to each his own.” Variations on the saying are heard primarily in the United States, England, and Australia, but it may have originated from a Latin phrase.
This idiom is commonly used when the speaker disagrees with another person’s choice, but does not think the point is worth arguing. For example, someone might say “I hate that television show, but he watches every single episode. To each their own!” In other words, the speaker thinks another’s opinion is ridiculous, strange, or just wrong, but recognizes the other person has a right to his or her own opinion.
Some linguists think the idiom is derived from the Latin phrase “suum cuique pulchrum est,” which means “to each, his own is beautiful.” In other words, every person thinks his belongings and his opinions are beautiful and right. A simple example is that every mother thinks her baby is the most beautiful baby ever born. Others may disagree, but each mother insists that hers is the best.
This is one of many phrases criticized for its improper use of the pronoun “their.” Grammatically, “to each their own” is incorrect, because “each” is singular, while “their” is plural. Since English does not have a personal pronoun that is both singular and gender neutral, many speakers use the plural gender neutral pronoun “their” instead of the more bulky phrase “his or her.”
In some areas, the saying “each to his own” is more common. A similar statement is “there’s no accounting for taste,” and the idiomatic phrase “whatever floats your boat” and its many adaptations also carry the same meaning. All these sayings are used to signify that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, even if the speaker disagrees.
An advertising campaign entitled “To Each Their Own,” further popularized the idiom when it was launched in the spring of 2011 by the American Honda Motor Company, Inc. The slogan was intended to emphasize that the company has many different options, so every person can find a car that he or she likes. Although the commercials were generally well received, some reviewers criticized them for their incorrect grammar.
“To Each Their Own” and the Evolution of Language
Phrases using “they” in place of “he or she” may raise some people’s hackles. That’s because it was incorrect grammar according to standard or “proper” English. If you were an American born before 1994, there’s a good chance you grew up learning this in English classes. To take a look at why the tide’s shifting in favor of its usage, a quick lesson on linguistics is in order.
How Prescriptive Grammar Defines Language
Starting around the mid-18th century, prescriptive commentators determined that singular “they” was a grammatical error. If you’re not sure what a prescriptive commentator is, you’re not alone. Simply put, prescriptive grammar sets down rules for language usage. It helps establish syntax and word order — for instance, why the typical word order is “subject-verb-object” in English instead of “subject-object-verb” as in Hindi.
A Quick History of Singular They
Sometimes, linguistic purism and personal prejudices influence these efforts. If you were taught not to use the word “ain’t,” that’s just one example. The status of the singular “they” also illustrates this point. Its usage has been traced back to the 14th century, when it emerged as a way to refer to people whose genders you didn’t know — “The delivery person’s on their way,” for instance. For a long time, it was considered standard usage.
Prescriptive grammar commentators in the 18th century weren’t the first ones to look down on singular “they.” That trend actually started in the 15th century with William Lily, an English grammarian. In one of his seminal works, a Latin grammar textbook, Lily proposed that “he” was the better pronoun to refer to someone whose gender was unknown. His reasoning? “The masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine, and the feminine more worthy than the neuter.”
Lily’s assertion influenced the English language for the next four hundred years. Because later grammarians would support his reason, “he” remained an all-inclusive pronoun until the 1960s. Second-wave feminism helped end its use.
Language, Gender, and Inclusivity
In 2015, the American Dialect Society declared that singular “they” was no longer a grammatical error. The Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style followed suit shortly afterward. With English having no singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun, this development seemed to make sense. But there were other forces at work behind the change: new understandings of gender identity and inclusivity. In this case, one could construe “to each their own” as giving space for people to discover and embrace their identities.
Transgender and Nonbinary People
Transgender people have long been part of the human family. The Galli, for example, were ancient Roman devotees of Cybele who were assigned male at birth but dressed and presented as women. A more recent example is Billy Tipton, a transgender man who enjoyed a successful career as a jazz pianist and bandleader from the late 1930s until his retirement in the 1970s.
Of course, there are individuals who don’t identify as male or female. Nonbinary people are gaining more visibility — for instance, English singer-songwriter Sam Smith and American rapper Angel Haze. Many, like Smith and Haze, opt to use singular “they/them” as their pronouns. Yet nonbinary identities are not new. For hundreds of years, communities of third-gender people have lived in India. Several Native American societies recognize identities that fell outside the male-female binary. Some Native people in modern times who identify this way use the term “two-spirit.”
A Revised Understanding of AAVE
“To each their own” can also apply in another case: giving space for others to use language in nonstandard ways. One excellent example is AAVE, short for African-American Vernacular English. Like any other language, this version of English has its own grammatical structure and features:
- The habitual “be” describing frequent action: “He always be late to work.”
- Use of the double negative: “That don’t make no sense.”
- Absence of the copula, or conjugated “be” verb: “Where you at?”
Some of these features exist in standard versions of other languages. Japanese sometimes omits the copula, double negative phrasing exists in French, and Irish Gaelic has its own version of the habitual “be.”
African-American Vernacular English has suffered a bit of a bad rap. Purist approaches to English play a part in its stigmatization, but so does racial prejudice. Black people often find themselves code-switching — altering one’s speech, behavior, and appearance to fit in at work, school, or other similar environments. The stigma attached to AAVE may be a reason some do this, but code-switching is also a larger issue.
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