A few weeks ago at our local pub quiz we had a question that I should have known – it was along the lines of “What important book was written by E. B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) and William Strunk?” I used the little “Elements of Style” book in high school and all through college and my mother referred to it so often that I was really ticked off when I couldn’t remember the title that night. As a graduate of a liberal arts college, my four years of study included dozens of term papers and essays, all of which were constantly graded not only for content but grammar and language usage as well. Over time my writing improved and eventually others came to me to review their papers and slides for grammar. All proceeded well until I came to Portland where assumptions about pronouns and grammatical accuracy required a revisit.
Here in Portland there are sufficient numbers of gender fluid or gender questioning or gender-different-to-birth-gender kids that it’s rather easy to accidentally use a ‘he’ when you should have used a ‘she’. What seems insurmountably difficult to me occurs when one is supposed to use ‘they’ for an individual. I shudder to even think of the grammatical problems in this …. Should I say “They is a good kid” or “They are a good kid”? I’ve had conversations in which a narrator relates an event referring to an individual who asks to be known as ‘they’ and the dialogue rapidly deteriorates as the narrator tries to preserve the pronoun the individual desires. Inevitably, the conversation leads to the use of the individual’s name thereby avoiding the confusion of misunderstood pronouns. Examples;
Sarah identifies with the pronoun ‘she’:
The team told me that Sarah said she wanted to do her homework tomorrow instead of next week
Sarah identifies with the pronoun ‘they’:
Misunderstood: The team told me that Sarah said they wanted to do their homework tomorrow instead of next week
Understood: Sarah told me that Sarah wanted to do Sarah’s homework tomorrow instead of next week.
Just writing this makes my eyes twitch and heart hammer. My daughter and son adapted so well they don’t know what my problem is, when my problem is not actually with acceptance of the individual’s choice to be gender-less or gender-rich, but with the use of the English language. Should I sacrifice the proper use of language to embrace an individual? I know, it is very petty, I should get over it and move on … but really I’m hung up on it. Just like I am with ‘close proximity’ – yeah – that bugs me because it’s a tautology. Yeah – irregardless REALLY bugs me because it simply is not a word. As you see by the links there are rational explanations for the usage of these … but it still feels wrong to me.
Eventually I’ll get used to this new update to the English language, and perhaps relish the way language changes over time to suit the new generation. How marvelous to reflect that my issues with gender fluidity are due to the impact it has on language whereas in my youth (in the 70’s) the issues might have been far greater.