I said I would follow up my last two posts with some examples of grammar rules I have changed my mind about over time, and then I realized there really aren’t many. I will follow rules I don’t love because they are dictated by an organization I am writing for, but when it comes to personal preference, I can get fairly stuck in my ways. But there’s one subject I used to feel passionately about, and now I am leaning more toward ambivalence. The leap from “I care a whole lot” to “I care a bit less” may not seem like a meaningful one, but considering how deeply held my beliefs are about pretty much every other linguistic law, that change is worthy of a blog post.
The Curious Case of the Singular Genderless Pronoun
[Cue Ominous Music, and a Few Confused Looks]
The English language has a problem. Okay, if you count how impossible it is to spell things, it has 87,493 problems. But here’s the one I’m thinking of at the moment: We don’t have a great way to refer to a hypothetical person (or non-human animal) whose sex or gender is unknown to us. For example:
If a student wants a good grade, _____ should complete assignments on time.
What goes in that blank? You can go with “he,” but that is sort of anti-feminist, since it excludes half the students at most co-ed institutions. Choosing “she” includes the half you left out with “he,” but alienates the other half who, for better or for worse, are used to being the default setting (see “mankind,” “chairman,” and many other male-centric nouns). There are also clunky options like “he or she,” “she or he,” and “s/he.” As a one-off, any of these options can work. Once you’ve had to refer to that hypothetical singular person more than a couple of times, though, they’ll start to become cumbersome.
Many people in this predicament go with “they.” It doesn’t imply gender, which is great. It does technically imply multiple people, thought, which makes it not work as a parallel to the singular noun that it relates to: “student.” As a lover of all things parallel, this hurts my heart a bit.
There’s a solution that works in most cases when discussing a hypothetical (and therefore genderless) person: Talk about more than one person! That would change the above sentence to:
If students want a good grade, ____ should complete assignments on time.
In that situation, “they” is the obvious correct choice. This is a great work-around, and I employ it regularly. But it isn’t always easy. Sometimes you are talking about a group and then need to focus in on a hypothetical individual within that group:
If one student in the group isn’t pulling ___ weight, ___ should be confronted directly.
This is a tricky situation, and I don’t have a clear answer for how to address it. I might try some grammar Parkour along the lines of:
If any students in the group aren’t pulling their weight, they should be confronted directly.
Sometimes that use of plurals isn’t an option, though. A few years ago, I would have been dead set against “their/they” for a singular hypothetical person in that sentence, but I’ve recently gotten more comfortable with it. Not because it’s an intractable problem and I’ve had to acquiesce to an imperfect solution, but because I’ve met people whose gender is non-binary, and who use “they/them/their” as preferred pronouns.
Regardless of my feelings about grammar, I am fully in favor of people being called by the words they want to be called by, and that has made me infinitely more comfortable with “they” as a singular pronoun that eliminates, or even transcends, gender.
I think the lesson here is that writers should bend to the wishes of their clients and their audience as much as possible. Now, if you tell me that you strongly prefer “supposably” to “supposedly,” I am going to try to talk you out of that. But when it comes to something as fundamental as a core element of your identity, I will happily do what works for you.