In school, most students are taught from an early age that he/him and she/her are the singular pronouns, with they/them reserved for plural subjects. The rule that they/them can only be used for groups of more than one stood true for a long time, but as the Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill tells its students on its website, “English has changed since the Declaration of Independence was written.” Recent discussions of gender inclusion have brought about the singular they, a pronoun used to refer to a single subject when the gender of the subject is unknown or does not identify with he nor she. Although not everyone agrees with the use of the singular they, writing centers have the unique opportunity to popularize the concept of the singular they and encourage writers to include non-binary people in their writing by forgoing gender when it is not necessary.
The use of the singular they gained popularity with discussions of gender identity and inclusiveness. In 2015, the American Dialect Society voted the singular they as its word of the year, specifically when used as a pronoun for someone who identifies as non-binary (Marquis). Similarly, the 2017 Associated Press Style Handbook debuted guidelines for using the singular they, noting that the pronoun should only be used in certain cases in which sentences cannot be restructured and a name cannot be used in place of the pronoun (Easton). Although the Associated Press made such restrictions on this pronoun, its recognition of the term in any sense proves a significant success in the push for gender inclusion in academia.
The American Dialect Society and the Associated Press weren’t the first ones to declare their support of the singular they. Authors as well-known as Jane Austen have used this pronoun in their writing. In one of Austen’s most famous novels, Emma, the main character shares, “Everybody was punctual, everybody in their best looks,” among other uses in the novel (emphasis mine). Writers who have established credibility as professional authors, like Austen, have been free to use the singular they as a stylistic tool because they are respected among the writing community and thought of as experts. However, it is often novice writers like students who are penalized or critiqued for using the singular they as not having knowledge of proper grammar. Writing centers can change this by explaining the benefits of using the singular they during tutoring sessions and changing the assumptions students and faculty on campus may have about the term.
Writing tutors can challenge these assumptions and include non-binary people in their community by teaching tutees about the singular they. The Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Kansas emphasizes the importance of gender inclusivity and the benefits of the singular they by stating, “Respecting non-conforming gender pronoun requests is important for the promotion of success for all learners.” Tutors can change the opinions about this term on their campuses by reinforcing this idea of respect for all when using the singular they. Tutors can also encourage tutees to utilize this term by providing examples of ways to use it. In traditional sentences like “If a student failed an exam, I would feel bad for him,” or “If a student failed an exam, I would feel bad for him or her,” tutors can encourage their tutees to say “If a student failed an exam, I would feel bad for them.” Not only does this sentence read better than ones in which the gender is guessed, it includes students who do not identify with male or female.
Opponents of this term may argue that changing the mind of one student during a tutoring session will not make the use of the term grammatically correct or acceptable in academia, but it is only with individual determination and acceptance that it can truly be popularized. English is not changed in large strides; it changes over time as people catch on to changes and trends in the language. Today, when students read the works of well-known eighteenth-century writers like Edmund Burke or Mary Wollstonecraft, they wonder how that English was ever used in writing or conversation. Similarly, when future students read the famous works of twenty-first century writers, they may mock them for incorrectly assuming the gender of subjects or gendering subjects without a specific affiliation as a method of the past, celebrating a victory for all those with the power to influence writing today.
Contributed by: Katie Poteet
Easton, Lauren. “Making a case for a singular ‘they’.” Associated Press, 24 Mar. 2019, http://www.blog.ap.org/products-and-services/making-a-case-for-a-singular-they. Accessed 27 Feb. 2019.
“Gender-Inclusive Language.” UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center, http://www.writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/gender-inclusive-language. Accessed 27 Feb. 2019.
“Jane Austen and other famous authors violate what everyone learned in the English class.” Jane Austen at The Republic of Pemberley, http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/austheir.html. Accessed 27 Feb. 2019.
Marquis, Marriott. “2015 Word of the Year is singular “they”.” American Dialect Society, 8 Jan. 2016, http://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they. Accessed 27 Feb. 2019.
“Personal pronouns and gender inclusivity in the classroom.” University of Kansas Center for Teaching Excellence, http://www.cte.ku.edu/personal-pronouns-and-gender-inclusivity-classroom. Accessed 27 Feb. 2019.