Friday, 1 July 2016

The rise of the pronouns

Pronouns, that most boringest part of 'parts of speech', the substitute of the grammar world, dutifully standing in for other, cooler words, has been given a new lease of life. Until recently if you wanted to say 'Tom likes pronouns and Tom uses them every day.' and not sound like someone pretending to be a human being, you could simply switch the subsequent 'Toms' for 'he' and you'd be all set.

The only really controversial aspect of pronoun usage was which one to use to replace singular nouns For instance, in the following sentences what is the missing word standing in for 'someone?
Someone left  ______ phone in the classroom

Traditional grammarians and the kind of people who would insist you say "I figuratively died!" in case they get confused, argue that as 'someone' is singular, the pronoun should also be singular. 'she', 'he' and 'it' were the choices on the table but surprisingly(!) they went for 'he' as "the Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine." ho-hum. Thus our sentence would read ''someone left his phone in the classroom.'

Ironically, as Henry Hitchens notes it was a woman who promoted the idea that the singular pronoun should be male. Ann fisher, author of the popular A New Grammar (1745) believed that 'he, him and his' could be used 'to cover both male and female in general statements.' 


In modern times 'singular they' has become increasingly acceptable, to the extent that almost everyone reading this would accept 'Someone left their phone in the classroom'. Singular they also neatly solves the gender neutral pronoun issue. When talking about a generic subject such as:
A teacher who talks too much will alienate their students.
And so with even style guides accepting 'singular they' it seemed as if the war was over. But in recent years there has been a disturbance in the force, as if millions of grammarians suddenly cried out in terror...

the current pronouns of English

The recent and quite dramatic media focus on Trans rights and 'gender nonconforming' people has shaken pronouns from their moribund slumber. The peak of media focus on trans issues was when 66 year old former Olympian Bruce Jenner announced that 'for all intents and purposes, I'm a woman.' Bruce became Caitlyn and he became she

Those who opposed or mocked this transition were accused of 'misgendering' -the crime of using the wrong pronouns (There is even a twitterbot designed to (rather inaccurately) enforce correct pronoun use). This sudden upheaval in grammatical terms led to some confused. Should we, for instance when talking about the Olympic achievements of this athlete use his or her? Did Bruce or Caitlyn win the 1974 decathlon? Is Jenner her children's father still, or is she now their mother?

This confusion though is nothing when compared to 'non-binary' or 'gender nonconforming' individuals. A few years back Facebook introduced more inclusive pronouns for such individuals, around 58 more to be exact. The boring old male and female are still there, but joining them are 'two spirit', 'agender', and 'bigender'. And these new genders bring with them new pronouns. The university of Milwaukee, for instance, has a page offering advice to the confused. they list, among commonly used pronouns 'singular they'. This may sound similar to the 'singular they' mentioned earlier but is, in fact, a very different beast. This 'they' is used to directly replace 'she' or 'he' in all sentences.

For instance, Jack Munroe, a food blogger and minor celebrtity has recently come out as Trans and has decided that her pronouns are they/them/their. Personal choice is a good thing, but things start to get a bit confusing when language is used in this way. In the first sentence of this paragraph for instance, I should have written 'has decided that the pronouns they would like...' and in not doing so I might be considered thoughtless and at worst possibly a bigot. 


Asking the entire English speaking world to change the way the language works for your benefit is an impressive demand. Wikipedia attempts to get round this by constantly referring to her as 'Munroe' (ironically recreating the very problem pronouns solve):
Despite working every day, Monroe was unable to make ends meet. By January 2014, finances had improved, and Monroe was able to move into a small 2 bedroom flat with their son.
There are limits to this though and Wikipedia eventually has to actually use said pronouns, resulting in the grammatical horror below
It was at this point they changed their name from their birth name to Jack Monroe - 'Jack' being short for "Jack of all trades", their nickname.
So Wikipedia has accepted this, as have some news organisations like the BBC, for instance, who when writing about Kit Wilson state:
As a child, Wilson never felt entirely female or entirely male. They figured they were a "tomboy" until the age of 16...
That this doesn't really work becomes clear when we read sentences where who the pronoun refers to has to be explicitly spelt out in parenthesis:
Earlier this year, Wilson asked friends to call them "Kit," instead of the name they (Wilson) had grown up with...
Here, the usefulness of pronouns as a class of word is nullified entirely. And there is a greater problem which at first isn't so obvious. You can see it in the sentence below from Wikipedia.
Jack Monroe is a writer, journalist and activist...
Can't see the issue? That's because you're used to normal English grammar. Allow me to explain

Verbs match pronouns. We say 'I am' not (usually) 'I is' or 'I are'. We say 'he is' we don't (usually) say 'you is', 'they is' and so on. Jack Munroe and Kit Wilson's preferred pronouns are 'they' which takes the verb 'are' (they are friends). When we use someone's name we assume the pronoun in order to work out the verb. That is, when I say 'John is tired' the reason I use 'is' and not 'are' is because John = he. As Jack Munroe does not equal 'she' or 'he' but 'they' the sentence should read:
 Jack Monroe are a writer, journalist and activist...
 This is such a normal part of our language that even those trying hard to use the right pronouns are getting it consistently wrong. Below are some examples of what writers should have written about Jack Munroe (I have corrected and highlighted the verbs):
Munroe were born in southend on sea
Munroe have three siblings 
Munroe were unable to arrange work 
Monroe are non-binary transgender and go by singular they pronouns 

This might seem like a fad or something that could never possibly catch on, but the recent case of Leo Soell might give you pause. Soell, who identifies as neither male or female, won a $60,000 settlement for, among others things being subjected to 'improper gender pronoun use' after her colleagues refused to call her 'they' (they 'they'?). New York City human right's commission states that failing to us an individuals preferred pronouns, such as 'Ze' or 'Hir' is discrimination and may result in a fine. This is a major switch in the way the English language is used. As Deborah Cameron* notes:
Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.
For hundreds of years grammarians pushed back against the common and reasonable usage of singular they. The few were able to demand acquiescence from the majority and be considered justified by dint of their supposed linguistic authority. But even grammarians never had the power to bring legal proceedings against those who used the language in way they disagreed with. 

In 2016 individuals can demand that every single other person apply an exceptional and arbitrary set of grammar rules to them and expect to be accommodated. It took hundreds of years for singular they to become accepted but now the floodgates appear to be open. 







*For a much more detailed look at this topic, check out Cameron's blog here.