Plus ça change—not necessarily for the better

I am sympathetic to the deep feeling of inadequacy as far as our binary-choice pronouns are concerned. I recall, still vividly, moving through life perpetually reminded of my marital status, back when females were either “Miss” or “Mrs.” (A bright light on that path was a student from Korea who insisted on calling me “Sir.”) Never mind that when “Ms.” was introduced it meant “Manuscript” to me and my literary-scholar colleagues—it was still a blessed refuge into the freedom of being myself independent of the existence (or nonexistence) of a spouse. I count a number of gender-fluid, questioning, and transgender people among my friends, and I sympathize with their dissatisfaction over yet another binary identity choice, and my own panic over pronoun choice particularly when referring to people I don’t personally know. It’s exciting to be present in a moment of language examination and creativity, even though it brings back memories of definition-by-single-factor associated with the “Miss/Mrs” dilemma.
But as a teacher of writing I have to keep my students focused on clarity; and the expedient, or experiment, of “the singular they” isn’t helping me. Here’s a little paragraph that will show you why: “In the article it discusses how the child does feel the impact and is upset when they first hear the news about their parents getting divorced, but it overall can bring themselves closer together in the end. The child still has two parents who care for them and are still able to reach the same milestones in life that they were going to reach and still able to have a good life even if it means that their parents aren’t living under the same roof.… It was also interesting to see is [sic] how sometimes the child will blame themselves for their parents divorce when they didn’t do anything at all but the parents just need to reassure them that it was nothing to do with them.”
Did you notice when grandparents seemed to sneak into the family picture?
One of the fundamental sources of confusion is that “they,” while doing service as an undefined third-person SINGULAR pronoun, also continues to be our standard PLURAL pronoun. In a context where the term could mean (to someone other than the writer, presumably) EITHER of those choices, the reader is left to clutch at other sentence clues in an effort to get the comprehensible mental picture that every sentence hopes to create.
The singular “they” can also mask the “they” that has always crept, grandparent-like, into sentences to save students from having to cope with a “he or she” situation or choose “he” for a gender-undefined filler individual, as in “When a student arrives at college he is full of hope.” (My own English teachers in high school and, yes, college [pre-Lib] explained it this way: “In English the masculine embraces the feminine.” Hot grammar!) Students produced paragraphs not unlike the child-of-divorce paragraph above BY MISTAKE in those days (and perhaps in the divorce example as well?). Maybe I should just relax and let “they” solve that grammar issue as well as the more-important identity issue.
For now, though, even the New York Times occasionally wanders into “they” chaos, particularly in the Weddings write-ups I so much enjoy reading on a Sunday morning. I would encourage the Times, as I encourage my students, to avoid the pronoun-choice issue entirely. The divorce paragraph above might then be rewritten thus: “The decision to divorce can confuse a child, who won’t know whom to blame, perhaps; but a divorce can bring family members closer together even when the structure of the relationship has changed. Parental care and attention are necessary, though, so that the child does not assume guilt for the change.” Well, I’m doing this on the fly, but you see it can be done. And the ideas get sorted out along the way, so that the central issue—the stress of divorce on the child—takes a more clearly central place in the paragraph.
Sonnets and haiku are pleasurably challenging to compose partly because of the demands the forms make on linguistic control. Maybe the same pleasure can be found in prose. Meanwhile, I hope our present quest for pronouns more appropriate to our very real identity needs will result in the discovery of devices that, like “Ms.,” allow each of us room without displacing the rest of our grammatical furniture.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to “Plus ça change—not necessarily for the better

  • Doug Miller

    Every student arrives at college, full of hope, naïve expectations, and bad habits. He might find a herself while vivifying a variety of characters in student productions. She might find a himself through athletic competition. Good for them. RuPaul says “We are born naked. Everything else is Drag”.
    There are more things in heaven and Earth than I dreamt of when I arrived, expecting to study Math, Philosophy, Science and Liberal Arts.

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