by Sarah Gayda
I've been thinking a lot about pronouns lately. Coincidentally, pronouns have also been in the news a lot lately. When does that ever happen?
My own pronoun preoccupation has been the result of hours and hours of editing copy for a client website. This job has served up plenty of my favourite pleasures: reconstructing sentences, fixing grammar and resolving punctuation issues. However, it's also stirred up a long-standing irritation.
One of my pet peeves is sentences that contain singular subjects and plural pronouns. Here's an example, "An individual should work hard if they want to achieve greatness." This non-agreement drives me crazy! And it's incredibly common. There are a couple of common ways to resolve this: 1. Change the subject to plural form, usually the preferred method (i.e., "Individuals should work hard if they want to achieve greatness.") 2. Make the pronoun singular, which often means using the dreaded "he or she" (i.e., An individual should work hard if he or she wants to achieve greatness.")
Using "he or she" in a sentence is awkward and cumbersome. It can trip up the reader and make the text more formal and impersonal than it needs to be. The majority of the time, I prefer to go with Option 1. That said, in some cases such as legal or similar text, using "he or she" can be the best choice in order to avoid ambiguity.
For my current client project, I chose to add these rules to our writing style guide:
- Avoid using "he or she" whenever possible. Use a non-gender descriptive term such as "person" or "individual" instead. However, in legal or similar text, "he or she" may be necessary to avoid ambiguity.
- If the subject of your sentence is singular, never use "they" as the pronoun, as it does not agree. Instead, try changing your subject to plural.
That said, all of this confusion and unpleasantness could be avoided if we could just agree on a genderless singular pronoun to officially add to the English language. Such a pronoun would make life a lot easier for writers wanting to ensure subject-pronoun agreement in their sentences. And it would make editors cringe a lot less.
This simple, singular-pronoun solution has been on my mind for years. But I never imagined a time when the topic of pronouns would make headlines, as it has done in the last few weeks.
The issue garnering recent mainstream media attention relates to a professor at the University of Toronto, Dr. Jordan Peterson, who said he would not use genderless pronouns (like "they") if asked to by a student, as he believes this is an infringement on his academic freedom. In certain provinces, denying such a request amounts to gender discrimination.
Needless to say, Dr. Peterson has attracted much criticism, particularly from the transgendered community and its supporters. Complaints, protests and rallies have only made Dr. Peterson more resolved in his stance, and he has released more videos and statements in support of his position.
The controversy surrounding Dr. Peterson has been positive in the sense that it has opened up discussion of human rights issues, specifically those of the transgendered population. These conversations are healthy and move our society forward.
Discussions with my teenage kids reveal they accept multiple genders and variations as completely normal, and I try to learn a thing or two from them about currently used terms like pansexual or gender fluid. My kids also know all about gender-neutral pronouns like "ze," "ne" and "ve," and don't think the idea of using them is any big deal.
I suggest we follow our kids' lead on this one. The issue at the University of Toronto is complex and political, but the solution could be quite simple. We just add a gender-neutral pronoun to our accepted vocabulary. It's no big deal, and it's the inclusive, right thing to do. It would also keep editors like me and ze very happy.
Photo credit: Ted Eytan