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©2019 by Betsy Barnum, Ph.D. Proudly created with Wix.com

Adventures of a 21st-Century Grammarian

When I was team leader of the Communications Team at the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, I published a weekly or so "advice column" for the mostly technical and planning-oriented writers in the office about the scintillating topics of grammar, punctuation, spelling and how to avoid overuse of passive voice. I may revive that practice here, just for fun. Check back in case I get inspired!

I'm Betsy, and my pronouns are she/her.

Pronouns are more important than they used to be. As more and more people in public and private life do not see themselves as existing at either end of the gender binary, and request to be referred to with a neutral pronoun instead of “he/him” or “she/her,” the use of “they/them” for singular subjects is showing up more frequently in writing and in conversation. In fact, "they" is Merriam-Webster's word of the year because it has been looked up more times than any other word this year. This growing interest follows M-W’s addition this year of definitions for “they” that include uses for non-gendered singular subjects and for subjects with non-binary gender identities. 

This reflects a significant shift on two fronts: grammar and gender. The use of a plural pronoun with a singular non-gendered subject has been considered a no-no by grammarians for a long time, since about the beginning of the 19th century, even though this usage was common and accepted for centuries before that. Jane Austen herself argued against the grammar police of her day who, for their own reasons, decided it was wrong to use a plural pronoun in a sentence lilke this: “Each student should bring their notebook to class.”

 

In Austen’s time, this was just starting to be considered ungrammatical. In today’s world, we are so indoctrinated with the wrongness of this that even though we are hearing it much more often these days, it may still sound off to our ears.

But in the middle of the 20th century, the feminist and LGBTIQ movements started to question the masculine bias of language—the use of “man” to mean “human, for example, and male pronouns as the default for any subject not specifically feminine. It was easy enough to start saying “human” or “person” instead of “man,” but the pronoun switch has been more difficult. We started to see “he/she” or s/he” as efforts to be inclusive, but that can get quite cumbersome when it needs to be done two or three times in the same sentence.

Now, in more recent years, thanks to rejection by many Millennials and Gen Z’ers of the gender binary itself, the plural pronoun is finally recovering its former place as a legitimate way to refer to a singular subject, and is going further as it becomes a term that grammatically acknowledges the existence of non-binary gender identities. This is new and, in my view, welcome.

At many meetings that I attend now, people introduce themselves with their name and their pronouns—e.g., "My name is Betsy, and I use she/her pronouns,” or just “Betsy, she/her.” I notice that some folks at these meetings don’t quite grasp the purpose of this, saying, for example, “My name is Jeff, and you can just call me Jeff.” The thing about pronouns is that they are not words we use in talking to another person, but in talking about them—and also in thinking about them and understanding them.

 

In the world I grew up in, and until very recently, everyone was either male or female, whether they really were or not. And we felt we had to know a person’s binary gender in order to know how to relate to them.

Now, with younger generations leading the way, we are being challenged to see that gender is not binary, and so it is actually possible to relate to another human being as a human being rather than as a male or a female. I’m so grateful for this opening of awareness and what it makes possible for human relating.

As a lifelong lover of language and reading, an English major for 50 years, I have evolved in my view of this change from insisting on the “purity” that the Grammar Police were after, rejecting “they/them” for singular subjects of any kind, to a passionate embrace of this grammatical expansion.

 

And the more younger people I meet who assert a non-binary identity, the more deeply I appreciate the versatility of “they/them” and celebrate the shift in grammatical understanding signified by the Merriam-Webster announcement and its own changes of definition.

Published December 12, 2019