The Nexus of Politics and Grammar


In addition to discussing linguistic relativity with my classes this week, we’re also going to go over the problematic issue of singular/plural pronoun agreement, in particular the sticky issue of indefinite pronouns. If you’ve ever gotten red ink on your writing for saying “Everyone is entitled to their opinion” then you’ve had to deal with this, and it’s one of the longest-lingering grammar-based arguments I’m aware of. I grew up when the appropriateness of using male pronouns as defaults (“everyone is entitled to his own opinion”) was finally questioned by enough people that widespread efforts were made to use more inclusive language. We’re finally seeing the first generations of students who grew up without seeing default male pronouns in their contemporary textbooks, so reading a text with default male pronouns can be a shock to them even if the text is only a couple of years older than they are.

The two most common workarounds for this issue have been to include both the traditional gendered pronouns (his or her, him or her, he or she), or to alternate between the two at regular intervals (alternating paragraphs or chapters). In practice these tend to be clunky, though, drawing too much attention to themselves. I’ve found that I’ve tried to reword my own writing to avoid having to make that choice, simply because both of those constructions tend to disrupt the flow of my prose. As I worked on material for my classes this past weekend, I also realized that neither of these are inclusive enough, and I realized that I should have come to that realization long ago.

Over the past few years I’ve met a number of friends who identify themselves outside of the gender binary construct that most of us are taught. More and more people these days, myself included, now see gender as a spectrum, with male and female as just two points on that spectrum (and not necessarily the end points). A couple of my friends identify as genderfluid, identifying their gender at different points on the spectrum at different times. There are also people who view themselves as both male and female, people who view themselves as genderless, and people who view their gender as completely outside the spectrum. The term “genderqueer” is sometimes used as an umbrella term for all these people, as well as transgender people, although there is still a fair bit of debate on this topic. (The term for people who find themselves attracted to people regardless of their position on the gender spectrum is ‘pansexual; Texas State Representative Mary Gonzalez made the news earlier this year as the first American politician to publicly identify as pansexual. I’ve also identified as pansexual since I was first made aware of the term years ago.)

This creates an additional layer of difficulty when it comes to inclusive language, because many genderqueer people prefer alternate pronouns to those we’re all used to. “Ze” (pronounced shay) for he/she and “hir” (pronounced here) for his/him/her are the most common I’ve run into, but there are others. Although “everyone is entitled to his or her opinion” is certainly more inclusive than the default male pronoun, this construction fails to recognize genderqueer people. Even if we were able to settle on ze and hir as common pronouns for genderqueer people, “everyone is entitled to his or her or hir opinion” is even more clunky than using “his or her.” (This doesn’t even get into the issue of what order the pronouns are used in.)

Looking back, this is an issue I should have given more thought to years ago, when I first became aware of genderqueer people and started making genderqueer friends. For a long time I’ve gotten my ink pen out when a student has written “Everyone is entitled to their opinion” and said that “their” can’t be used to reference a singular subject, even though most of us do so in speech all the time. I’ve encouraged the “his or her” construction and others like it, even though I have friends whom I refer to as hir. On the one hand, binary-based constructions are probably what will be expected of my students in their other classes, and I want to prepare them for writing in those classes, for those instructors (and others who hold power over them outside of school) who either aren’t aware of, or don’t recognize, genderqueer people. At the same time, though, thinking about this issue makes me realize that something needs to be done about it by someone, and since this is an issue with personal meaning to me because of my genderqueer friends, I should be one of the ones to act.

For a while there’s been a movement to make plural pronouns like “they” and “their” acceptable for use in reference to singular subjects, although it started as a way to work around the clunkiness of binary constructions. (If you’ve ever read a long piece of writing about hypothetical situations and lost count of the number of “he or she” and “his or her” usages, you know what I’m talking about.) In addition to being less clunky than binary constructions, I think it also provides a comparatively elegant workaround for the issue of gendered pronouns, and it also has the advantage of already being widely used in colloquial speech.

I’m going to start using “they” and “their” to refer to singular subjects from now on, and I’m going to allow my students to do so as well (although I will caution them that other instructors might not be okay with it). Given how long it took to rid our literature of the default male pronoun, I doubt that this change is going to gain widespread momentum in my lifetime, but this is a topic that I think is worth devoting time and effort to, if not for genderqueer people as a whole, then at least for my genderqueer friends.

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