Gender and Grammar and Growth, Oh My!


image: exchange.smarttech.com

image: exchange.smarttech.com

My son B has been maturing by leaps and bounds the past couple of months. It’s like he’s having a massive mental growth spurt.

As a result, he is increasingly finding out what it means to be him, and learning how to be more assertive about the boundaries between himself and others. At the same time he’s also expanding his experience to include more and more of the world around him. All this seems to suddenly be happening at a faster pace than ever before.

It’s fascinating. It’s also hard to keep up with. One day he’s a boy and the next day he’s a young man.

Until recently, when B felt like debating with me, it was usually either about a movie or about some completely theoretical, often rather far-fetched situation. So I would debate with him, focusing on logically sound arguments, since the main point was to have a debate–to enjoy the sport of it. The topic was almost of secondary importance.

A few days ago he began talking about non-binary people, and how a friend of his at school is non-binary and doesn’t want to be referred to as “she” anymore, but as “they”. I immediately began arguing in the cerebral way I have always argued with him, mostly just for the sport of it.

And being a librarian and a person with a master’s degree in English and a translator of Dutch into English, my argument was based on the fact that it is grammatically incorrect to use a plural pronoun like “they” to refer to a single person, and the non-binary community should come up with a new, non-binary singular pronoun. “They” was already taken as a plural pronoun.

B’s response was that it wasn’t grammatically incorrect, that people had been using “they” to refer to individuals since the Middle Ages, so it was not at all silly for non-binary people to want to use “they” as their new singular pronoun.

Of course, I argued that the fact that people have been making a grammatical mistake since the Middle Ages doesn’t mean that it should stop being considered a mistake. After all, there’s a reason for grammar. Without grammar rules, communication is less effective, and could even end in total confusion.

(For example, when I read a web article about non-binary pronouns, I found a suggestion to use “it” instead of “he” or “she”. And then a sentence as example of how that would work: “I told John a joke and it laughed.” Grammatically that’s just absolute nonsense–jokes don’t laugh. )

B claimed that using “they” wouldn’t be confusing.

No?

So if someone uses “they” to refer to a single person, does that mean the speaker–or writer–is making a common grammar mistake or that the person referred to is non-binary? And what verb do you use with a traditionally plural pronoun if it’s suddenly used to refer to one person? “Hey, did you see Jessica?” “Oh yes, They was walking that way five minutes ago.” Or, “Oh yes, they were walking that way five minutes ago.” The first answer sounds really wrong, and the second answer might lead the person asking about Jessica to wonder if the question was misunderstood.

B kept insisting that using “they” as a singular pronoun wasn’t grammatically incorrect.

“Yes it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay, then you’re being biased against non-binary people.”

Whoa!

Now let me point out that this conversation didn’t actually take place this way. We were going back and forth a lot. In reality I repeated myself over and over. Including the part where I said that it’s obviously time to have a pronoun for non-binary people, that I completely understand the need, but that they should come up with a new one because “they” was already taken as plural.

“But why can’t you just refer to them in the way that they want to be referred as?”

First things first, of course, so I pointed out that y0u can’t end a sentence with “as”.  I was still taking this lightly, you see, and me pointing out grammar mistakes in the heat of an argument has always been good for a chuckle. But not this time.

And then, to answer B’s question, I came back to, “Because it’s not grammatically correct.” I again named all the pitfalls of using “they” as a singular pronoun, pointing out how it would lead to very silly sentences.

Well, B got very upset. Most of which wasn’t clear enough to me in the heat of the argument, which I was enjoying thoroughly. After talking with B that evening, T pointed out to me that B was extremely disappointed in both my apparent inability to look beyond grammar rules and my dismissive attitude toward what non-binary people themselves want. It was quite shocking for him to find that out about me.

And then I realized that B had actually been arguing a point mainly because he wanted to let everyone know about the way his friend wanted people to refer to, uh, them. Because he cared about his friend. This was real to him in a way his previous debates with me had never been.

Of course, the last thing I want in the world is for my son to be disappointed in me. And of course I’m not biased against non-binary people and I would never want to be considered biased. So I relented. Somewhat. I told him that, though it’s grammatically incorrect, I will refer to his friend as “they” if that’s what they want, though I feel sure that at some point the non-binary community will have to agree on a new singular pronoun.

Phew! I narrowly escaped being despised by my son!

I’m telling this on the one hand to illustrate how fast teenage boys can change and how hard it can be for a parent to keep up, because B was coming from a very different place than I was used to.

On the other hand, I’m telling this because it’s a fascinating topic. It’s not often that avoiding bias requires a language group to decide what pronoun to use. Different nouns, yes. but those are easy. Instead of referring to black people as “negroes”, we say “black people” or, in the US, “African-Americans”, although that doesn’t include black people who aren’t American. Changing the language related to race never involved grammar.

So what do you think? Do you feel that it’s okay to use “they” as a singular pronoun to refer to non-binary people, do you have a preference for any of the suggestions in this article, or do you have some suggestions of your own? And what’s going on with this in other languages?

Let me know.

7 responses to “Gender and Grammar and Growth, Oh My!

  1. The invented pronouns some nonbinary people prefer sound just that–invented. They don’t fit smoothly the way “they” does. “You” was once a plural-only second person pronoun, and the verb form follows the pronoun’s, so “they are” is correct for the gender-neutral singular third person pronoun just as “you are” is for the second person singular.

    Grammar rules are only legitimate of they are necessary to the working of the language. A “rule” that has been consistently broken for centuries is not a “rule” at all. It’s nothing more than a false formalism, an elitist denial of the real, down-and-dirty rules of the glorious bastard tongue that is English.

    And people should be referred to by the pronouns they prefer–even if they sound contrived or break “rules.”

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  2. I’m not quite sure how to think. Firstly I am trying to get to grips with the term non-binary, because I haven’t heard it before, and secondly I thought it was grammatically incorrect to use ‘they’ except in the plural sense. I have heard ‘they’ used in a singular way and thought it was incorrect e.g.’ If your child has a waterproof coat they should bring it to school next Monday.’ It just sounds all wrong to me, but maybe I need to get with it and move with the times. 😦

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    • It is wrong. It’s accepted by now to use “they” as a singular noun in informal writing and speech, but to have it officially be a singular pronoun for non-binary people makes no sense to me from a grammatical point of view. From the point of view of non-binary people, I totally get that they need a neutral singular human pronoun. And no, I hadn’t heard the term non-binary before yesterday, either, but it’s definitely a thing. At our kids’ school, where racism and homophobia are pretty much non-existant, this is the human rights frontier!

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  3. I hadn’t heard of the term non-binary either, thanks for educating me!
    I suppose this would apply to Conchita Wurst, this year’s winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. Look them (?) up and you’ll see what I mean. The song wasn’t half bad either, and they (?) got a lot of sympathy from the Eurovision fans – traditionally very friendly towards alternate sexual orientations or gender specifics.

    As for the grammar: the definite use of singular they. I think it is an innovation that I’ll be struggling with for some time, to use ‘they’ to refer to a specific person who happens to be of non-binary gender identity, but that has mostly to do with my still very binary mind. I find that I keep referring to Conchita for example, as ‘she’.

    The other use of singular they on the other hand, the indefinite singular ‘they’ – as in ‘If your child has a waterproof coat they should bring it to school next Monday.’, where the speaker refers to a single person who is yet unspecified) – that doesn’t hurt my grammatical eye anymore. I actually find it a clever hack to avoid monstrosities like ‘s/he’ ,or overusing the phrase ‘he or she’.

    It’s funny how these things go. In German, building the female of a person noun is very regular, just add -in. So in recent times, first they set right the lack of female counterparts for previously male professions by simply adding -in (‘Managerin’). The complete opposite happened in Dutch, where all female versions of professional names (e.g. ‘directrice’) have been abandoned. So no longer can you tell if the boss of a firm (‘directeur’) is a woman, until her first name pops up, or the first ‘she’ or ‘her’ is used n a sentence.

    Recently, though, Germans are again struggling with the linguistic gender identity debate. One German university lecturer in Gender Studies and Linguistics now refers to themselves (!) as Professx, rather than Professor or Professorin.
    http://www.spiegel.de/unispiegel/wunderbar/gendertheorie-studierx-lann-hornscheidt-ueber-gerechte-sprache-a-965843.html
    (Sorry – couldn’t find a link in Dutch or English).

    I think the most important part here is that language, including grammar, is ultimately defined by its use, not by the previous version of the codification of these rules.
    For the record, im all for learnng and using proper grammar – I think not knowing the current convention is just illiterate, and not to be confused with real innovation. Of which this new ‘definite singular non-binary’ use of ‘they’ might be an example, if it catches on – the need for an innovation on this point is certainly there.

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    • Hi, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, I always referred to myself as a bibliothecaris, not bibliothecaresse. Interesting how Germany and the Netherlands have opposite ways of solving that problem; do you have any thoughts on that? As for Conchita Wurst, yes, I saw that. I told my children about it, too. (“It” in this case referring to the fact that “they” won the song festival.). I use indefinite they, too, in speech, and in very informal writing, as sometimes on my blog. But the use of definite they does cause confusion, and that’s why I still think that, ultimately, they’ll have to come up with a new pronoun.

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