Is Your Pronoun a Boy or a Girl? Prescription vs. Evolution

Do you ever feel like you’re swimming upstream? I’m experiencing an existential crisis of the linguistic variety wherein my English teacher self is battling my socio-cultural self. The trend in the English language currently, both spoken and in print, is the increasing use of they/them as a gender neutral singular pronoun. Pretty much every single student paper I’ve read in the last couple of years has done this. It’s especially common when students are attempting to sound formal and use the word “one” for a hypothetical discussion about someone. Ironically, their attempts to be intentionally formal and gender neutral are not reflected in their outdated use of words like “mankind.” I can’t completely blame them for still using that clunker of a manly throwback because it’s persisted in popular media. Every time I hear it in a movie or on television, I cringe. C’mon, Hollywood screen writers: Is the word “humanity” that complicated?

So, we’re moving to a point in language where they/them is a singular pronoun. Great. We need one.  Many contemporary sources on the subject advocate quite loudly for the use of they/them as an appropriate gender neutral singular. Current thinking in LGBTQ+ studies is to allow individuals to determine their own pronouns. It’s even one of the user-selected pronoun choices on Facebook. Unfortunately, English pedagogy isn’t quite onboard yet. All existing grammar textbooks I (am required to) assign for my classes and my English department guidelines all state that I should point out this “error” to students. What this amounts to is me telling my students that their correct decision to use gender neutral pronouns is incorrect. It’s not even a grammar rule I adhere to in my own speech.

I say “they” all the time in reference to a single person. My use of this formerly plural pronoun as a singular is a daily occurrence. Lately, whenever I hear myself say it, I note that I’ve done it and under what circumstances. Usually, it’s when I am either referencing a person generically, or more commonly, referencing a person whose gender I don’t want to reveal. This is a strategy LGBTQ+ people have been employing for years to publically discuss their significant others without outing themselves. It’s colloquially called playing “the pronoun game.” But increasingly, it’s no longer a strategic choice made for safety reasons by sex and gender minorities—it’s linguistic evolution—and my English teacher self feels like a fish with stubby legs wondering if those new fangled furry mammals walking around all cocky on dry land are going to eat me because I’m too slow to run away.

Prescriptively speaking, the “official” guidelines for directing students to fix their pronoun “errors” is to have them revise sentences to make all the nouns plural. When I write, this is what I do, as the previous sentence demonstrates. This is fine, and for generic discussions, plurals are usually stylistically preferred anyway; however, the “fix” feels like a stopgap measure for educators until we can put our collective gigantic brains together and come up with a better answer to teaching grammar than telling students they’re linguistically wrong for being politically correct.

Linguistic evolution isn’t a new thing—it’s the way language works. We all stopped using the gendered word “doctoress” back in the nineteenth century. Even ole’ long-in-the-tooth Microsoft Word knew to auto-correct that to the gender neutral doctor (and MSWord doesn’t know what heteronormativity means.) If you think I made that word up, go read Henry James’ book The Bostonians. Also, Google “Boston marriage” just for funsies.

In summation, my sensible-shoes wearing, ruler-cracking English teacher self wasting red ink circling plural pronouns is feeling out of sync with my skinny-jeans wearing, sriratcha and kale eating hipster self who knows that English is a pronoun-deficient language and we’re using what’s available.