By Katie Sheridan
Many colleges include evolutionary psychology in their curriculum, but what about evolutionary grammar? This week I stumbled across an article about using “they” instead of “he or she” when the subject’s gender is unknown. I was resistant to the notion until I read what the bloggers Leslie Ayres and Grammar Girl had to say.
Ayres is a job recruiter who frequently works with resumes that don’t disclose the writer’s gender. Many times she is stuck awkwardly writing “he or she.” So in one of her blogs she used “they” after a singular antecedent.
She wrote multiple sentences that broke the singular antecedent agreement rule, including, “And then there was the reader who shared about the tattoo they saw in a movie: Born Too Loose.” Her perceived mistake caused an uprising among commenters.
One anonymous reader published this comment: “Ignorance of an important fact does no[t] give you license to pluralize the pronoun when the noun it refers to is singular.” (And yes, I suspect this reader failed to revise his or her snappy comment before posting it. Ironic.)
Ayres decided to explain her purposeful use of “they” in her next post, urging people to start a revolution by dubbing “they” the new gender-neutral pronoun. She and Grammar Girl point out the irritations avoiding the gender-neutral “they” contains. They say it is cumbersome and awkward to say “he or she” for every pronoun in a gender-neutral sentence; remodeling the sentence to be plural doesn’t always work; and using “they” avoids the sexism of assuming the subject is one gender over the other.
I love grammar. My fondness for the rules that create consistent communication makes me loath to change them. But after taking The History of the English Language class, I have resigned myself to the fact that language must grow and evolve. In the History of English, I learned how English transformed from one phase to the next. The textbook for this class was Elly Van Gelderen’s A History of the English Language that detailed the changes that English was still experiencing.
The book explained that Old English was a synthetic language based on conjugations. Old English evolved into an analytic language with grammatical aspects like auxiliaries and prepositions. Van Gelderen explained that language does not stop because it has reached the analytic phase; linguists predict that English will continue to cycle between synthetic and analytic phases. The synthetic qualities of English are again appearing.
While style guides and academia hold academic and media writing stable, colloquial English is changing and taking the entire language along with it. Grammar Girl even mentions that the Dictionary of the English Language and Fowler’s Modern English Usage style guides have already made this use of “they” acceptable. The well-known dictionaries Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary also include this rule.
And so, fellow grammar enthusiasts, I must concede that I would support this change to style guides. But until a majority of credible sources begin to use this rule, I will stick to “he or she.”
I know many of us in Print Media Editing are strict about grammar, but would you support this change? What are your reactions to the theory that our language is always changing? Do you believe it can ever stay the same? Would it be a positive or negative occurrence if grammar/language never changed?