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Return of the Grammar Grinch

I try mightily to maintain my composure when the English language goes off the rails, but having spent my working years as an editor makes it difficult. Being “old and set in my ways” makes it even harder. English is a constantly evolving language — which is both admirable and distressing, depending on the situation and one’s point of view. I can still remember saying, “‘Ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary” — until it was. And we’re all familiar with the chronic misuse of “virtually” instead of “figuratively” — until the dictionary people relented and made such use an acceptable alternative.* “Gay” used to mean happy and carefree. “Snowflake” used to mean those little white flecks that fall from the sky. Anyway, you get the idea.

So now comes the issue of “non-binary” individuals who do not want to be referred to as “he” or “she.” Increasingly it appears they prefer “they.” Very confusing, that. “They” is plural, and its use for a single individual is ridiculous and confusing. Like the creation of “Ms” as an honorific for all women, we need a new singular, gender-neutral pronoun. Or at least a new singular pronoun for non-binary individuals.

A story in The Guardian makes the problem pretty obvious with sentences like these:

A teenager stabbed their mother more than 100 times …

Rowan Thompson, 17, had just returned from a jog with Joanna Thompson when they attacked her …

The inquest was told that Rowan was visiting their mother …

The teenager told police they felt “strange” …

You see the problem? Maybe Brits are more willing to mangle the language this way. Maybe American writers would recast sentences to avoid such confusion. Maybe society, not the individuals, should decide on the pronouns to be used. We got as far as “he,” “she,” and “it.” I can appreciate that non-binaries don’t want to be “it,” but would it be so hard to create a fourth pronoun?

And a by-the-way here: Don’t call me a “cis female.” I’m “female,” period. You can qualify your gender and be “trans” or “non-bi” or something else if you prefer, but that doesn’t entitle you to change or diminish my 77-year-old designation. (And there it is. I, an individual, telling society what I want to be called!)

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*Yes, I know the difference between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries. And I’m familiar with the use of “they” as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant. (eg: Every child recognized their own parent.) Just humor me, okay? It’s 2020 and I’m feeling particularly grumpy.

12 Comments »

    • I saw one source that flatly rejected s/he but espoused precisely the use of “they” as illustrated in The Guardian. Ugh. “Shehe” sounds a bit like a laugh and “they” probably wouldn’t like it.

    • My position exactly. Somebody thought up a new word that diminishes me and makes me “the other” — cis-female — but can’t up with a new word that is positive for them?

  1. “‘Ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary”
    That’s funny. I actually just checked not too long ago (meaning within the past year or so) as I remember saying that as a kid and wondered if it actually was in the dictionary. Which is was/is, but is considered “informal.”

    • Well, I’ve got a few years on you. And when I was a kid, it wasn’t in the dictionary. But these days it seems like almost anything can make its way into one dictionary or another. The more questionable items land in the Urban Dictionary (which on occasion has saved me from saying something embarrassing). It’s one way for us old farts to keep up with what the kids are saying.

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