Gender and Grammar

I generally feel rather strongly about using correct grammar. I suppose I ought to as a communications professional. But there are a few rules which I continue to break no many how many times I’ve been corrected.

I almost wish I’d kept a running tally, for example, of the number of times I’ve been marked down for noun/pronoun disagreement. That is, for writing sentences such as:

Did your child get their vaccine?

That’s incorrect, you see, because the child is singular while “their” is plural. You could ask about children getting their vaccine, but if your talking to a person with one child, that is not an optimal solution.

Traditionally, the proper approach was to always use “he” when a singular gender was unknown.

But, as others have noted this approach is generally considered “outdated and sexist.” An unknown person isn’t always male, after all.

So then came the so-called gender-neutral solutions:

Did your child get his or her vaccine?

Or, if you’d like to be a little more edgy, you can replace the default “he” to a default “she”:

From each, according to her abilities.

Those were the grammatical suggestions I received growing up, but neither ever seemed quite satisfactory.

“He or she” is just clunky. If you don’t know the gender of the person you are talking about, nobody cares enough for you to spend that much time on it.

Using a default “she” is delightfully subversive, but I personally find it rather stale. It seems to typically be used by men who are trying too hard to prove they’re feminists. That use may have its place, but is generally unhelpful to me.

And, of course, there’s a bigger problem to these solutions: both reinforce a gender binary. Are “his” and “hers” the only gender options?

English doesn’t offer much in the way of genderless nouns, as you might guess from the fact that they would more properly be called “neuter” nouns.

Did your child get its vaccine?

Well, okay, I might say that, but only because I am cold-hearted and childless.

From each, according to its abilities.

Better get ready for the Marxist robot take over.

Some have advocated for the use of newer pronouns, such as ze and xe. Call me old fashion, but I just prefer the simple they.

And better yet, there’s a now a term for this. I haven’t been suffering from noun/pronoun disagreement after all – I’ve just been using the singular they.

This may seem all neither here nor there, but words matter. Words are important.

So I was delighted to see the New York Times recently profile students at the University of Vermont – where the university allows students “to select their own identity — a new first name, regardless of whether they’ve legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun — and records these details in the campuswide information system so that professors have the correct terminology at their fingertips.”

Of course, this doesn’t stop the times from trotting out tired tropes of gender norms – saying one student “was born female, has a gentle disposition, and certainly appears feminine.”

But, I suppose, change happens bit by bit. It changes through big movements and upheaval, but it also changes through words and grammar. And so I stand by my grammatical standard:

Regardless of a person’s gender, they can go by any pronoun they want.


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