(Pedantic) Question of the day – Singular “they”

Michael Laser recently emailed me the following:

“A student pointed out to me that “they” is now considered acceptable as a singular pronoun. (“Someone left their glove in my car.”) I was skeptical, so I checked it out, and found the attached article. My guess is, my generation will have to die off before this is universally accepted.

If you think people would benefit from reading the article, please either email to FYW teachers or post via the blog.

“Sorry, grammar nerds. The singular ‘they’ has been declared Word of the Year.” – The Washington Post

So, here’s the question – do you allow students to use the singular “they” in your classes?

Personally, I do, primarily because it is more gender-inclusive and provides more options. Plus I’m just not that picky and have a lot of larger issues to focus on.




6 thoughts on “(Pedantic) Question of the day – Singular “they”

  1. This is something that’s been causing me quite a bit of struggle this year. In the interest of being inclusive of nonbinary gender, our very-gendered language is facing a need to evolve. But at the same time, most of the people who use the singular “they” aren’t doing it to make a linguistic statement. It’s also common to write “would of” and “I use to,” but none of us would consider that to be acceptable in an academic landscape. Students need to know what the rules are before they can be set free to break them.

    In my FYW courses, I devote a week to grammar near the start of the term, in order to set a baseline level of expectations. I address the singular “they” during that period, with the same caveats used to explain the concept of split infinitives. We’re less likely to consider “to boldly go” as forbidden, but that doesn’t mean we should stop learning the rules entirely. At present, it’s still a matter of disagreement between pronoun and antecedent. It’s not damaging for students to know that this is an issue where the rules are subject to change. In my experience, groups have been surprised to learn that language is even allowed to progress in the first place (some of them chalk it up to a general frustration with the Humanities’ refusal to commit to a firm “right answer”).

    At the level of writing we’re trying to encourage, there are other ways to avoid the awkward he-or-she conundrum. If we challenge them to avoid easier language, they’re forced to develop more complexities in their work. To use the Post’s sample sentence as a springboard:
    “Everyone wants their cat to succeed.” What about alternate constructions, that lie less on the broad concept of “everyone”? “Successful cats reflect well on their owners” or “We crave success, even when it is linked to our pets” would service the same idea just as well.

    Obviously, focus on the harder rules of English will diminish as their writing progresses. I don’t think there’s an issue with letting a singular “they” slide into a senior capstone or thesis. But at the same time, there was a recent discussion in this space about ways to handle students who weren’t prepared for the college experience by their high schools. If we can’t trust high schools to give them a standard for language and usage, then I think at least the lower tiers of higher ed wouldn’t be hurt by a bit of rigorousness.

  2. I’m glad you posted about this, thank you! I’m a bit of a grammar junkie myself, but this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I read the WaPo article when it first came out and decided that, this semester, I would try an experiment and incorporate the gender inclusive, singular “they” into the classroom. No longer would I focus on the they-as-purely-plural pronoun. I spoke with my students about this at the beginning of the semester, briefly addressing the current discussion around the use of “they.”

    I will also say that I was influenced by the learning experiences I’ve had at MSU specifically. Taking the Safe Space training really opened my eyes and my awareness. I’ve also had more students who identify as trans* or who are exploring gender fluidity. In an effort to make the classroom a more open, encouraging environment for learning, I thought that maybe it was time for me to let go of some the grammar ideologies that I’ve had so rigorously ingrained in me. It felt unfair to force students into the singular he/she, his/her binary — especially if these binaries existed as another example of exclusion. If a student doesn’t identify on a specific side of the binary, where do they fit in the language? And for the cis-gender population who identify along the binary, using the inclusive “they” gives them the opportunity to practice inclusivity by not lingually reinforcing the idea that a singular person must be a “he” or a “she.”

    Language can be a beautiful tool to help us describe and explore a growing identity. If I believe in language as such, why should I continue to use language that excludes a portion of the population in my classes? I take comfort in the idea that language is a living, breathing tool that has the ability to adapt and change — so I though that I should adapt and change, too.

    Let me be clear: the thoughts above are my own intimate thinking process. I am in no way suggesting that anyone who prefers to keep “they” as solely a plural pronoun is being exclusive or unwelcoming in their classrooms. I know the opposite to be true. I understand from a grammar point of view why it is beneficial for students to understand why “they” is a plural pronoun. I just wanted to share where my headspace/heartspace was around the conversation in this moment, and I welcome ideas from others!

  3. I allow singular “they” too. I thought about it for a long time (that is, years), before I did. But four years ago, in my twentieth year of teaching freshman writing, I decided that I was done waiting for somebody else to decide that it had become acceptable and that I needed to be part of the change. The rules change. It is time for us to acknowledge this one has changed.

  4. I agree with Christine that taking Safe Space training can really offer a new perspective on this issue. We often don’t think of pronouns as being potentially harmful–but this seemingly minor language choice can have real repercussions for a non-binary identifying person. Accepting singular they is a growth moment for a lot of us–and also a really great opportunity for us to talk with our students about how language is a living thing, always changing and evolving. It’s fun to talk with students about language in this sense as opposed to a set of concrete rules!

  5. In conversation, sure, “they” is acceptable as a singular pronoun. But in writing, no. I do tell my students that language evolves, rules change, and “they, ze and zir,” as gender-neutral singular pronouns, are gaining currency and are admirably respectful in a non-binary world. But I hope to teach my students to express their ideas clearly, thoughtfully and logically. They use “they” as a singular pronoun, not for its gender-neutrality, but because they’ve lost track of the subject of their sentence. So I’ll wait until the larger world is further along in the evolution of its standards. While today I might accept “Someone left their glove in my car,” I can’t imagine “They is wearing gloves”!

  6. Jessica Lugo on April 22, 2016 at 3:47 pm said: At the level of writing we’re trying to encourage, there are other ways to avoid the awkward he-or-she conundrum. If we challenge them to avoid easier language, they’re forced to develop more complexities in their work.
    Christine G. on April 22, 2016 at 7:01 pm said: I take comfort in the idea that language is a living, breathing tool that has the ability to adapt and change — so I thought that I should adapt and change, too.
    cdadas on April 23, 2016 at 3:50 pm said: language is a living thing, always changing and evolving
    Joanmarie Kalter on April 23, 2016 at 4:44 pm said: But I hope to teach my students to express their ideas clearly, thoughtfully and logically
    When people comment on language, or grammar in particular; I seem to recall a writer I was introduced to at Montclair State; Toni Morrison. I feel already the “error of my ways” as many may say that language and grammar studies may not be the same thing. In fact, Toni Morrison’s speech for her Nobel Prize may not be referring to grammar at all. With the addition of the “Language Awareness” text and William Zinsser’ essay, “Simplicity,” I may be getting warmer in addressing grammar; however, for many professors, not so much or even not at all. I am working very hard right this minute to “watch it buddy!” My experiences in teaching have been enlightening to say the least, but I know I can count on Montclair State University to keep it real and practice what the “teach.” These have been my guide for teaching High School English, although for only twelve years. When I began instructing college courses, I started by apologizing for that. Sentence structure and grammar are a problem and I work my blue pen very hard to help my students with their editing. But then again; thinking cannot always be crossed out and one cannot write it for them. I believe they must read it and think it to write it. They must read things like this:
    “So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency – as an act with consequences.”
    Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.
    From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1991-1995, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997
    “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

    On Writing Well, Sixth Edition revised and updated. Copyright © 2001 by William K. Zinsser

    I had been teaching “Developing Analytical Though” at HCCC, a developmental reading course to supplement students who wrote well enough to score well on the entrance exam but did poorly on the reading comprehension. I suppose the topic for entrance writing may have been right up their alley because I encounter less than expected. The course utilizes Bain’s What the Best College Students Do and an introduction to a Drama course in the story line titled “Integration of Abilities.” The HCCC developmental reading course required a portfolio of their writing and reading responses. Their grammar and mechanics improved and reached English Comp I expectations because of the writing process but with more reading and thinking.

    Note: In an attempt to acquire a Capstone instructor and mentor for my Master’s, I was rejected by my first choice partly because of the way I used semi-colons.

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