I volunteer at my local theatre as a steward (because I’m a really good person, and definitely not because I get to see all the shows for free). Last night I saw a production put on by the local women’s refuge made up of songs, poems and readings written by women from the shelter. I was so moved by this show of female solidarity that I decided I needed to express it in blog form. So as this blog is officially about words and grammar, this time around I’ve decided to talk about (TENUOUS LINK ALERT!*) gender neutrality in writing.
All English third person singular pronouns (he, she, his, hers and so on) tell you the gender of the person or people you’re talking about. So for a long time the default setting has been to use ‘he’, basically alienating half the population. As in:
‘If a member of your family needs advice, he can call this number.’
I see sentences like this a lot in the legal texts I work on (especially in the ACTUAL LAW), and they make me grind my teeth/raise my eyebrows/sigh about the patriarchy every time. But the good news is that this lack of a gender-neutral pronoun in English has now given rise to the singular ‘they’ (‘If a member of your family needs advice, they can call this number’). And the bad news is that technically it’s grammatically wrong – it’s disagreement peeps.
Smashing the grammatical glass ceiling
Obviously, this is one of those few** grammar rules that’s downright ridiculous. And thankfully proper writers have been breaking it forever:
- ‘She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.’ (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
- ‘“A person can’t help their birth,” Rosalind replied with great liberality.’ (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair)
- ‘I know when I like a person directly I see them!’ (Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out)
Just in case you’re still not convinced by these literary luminaries, the American Dialect Society† chose the gender-neutral singular they as its word of the year in 2016. And who are we to argue with them?
So, dear readers, please go forth and use the singular they with gay abandon. Just make sure you’re following the other, more sensible, grammar rules while you’re doing it.
* Yep, this is an extremely tenuous link. But the women’s refuge is amazing so I don’t care. And if you’ve got a spare fiver burning a hole in your pocket, why not bung it their way?
** Some people might disagree with my use of the word ‘few’ here.
† Nope, I don’t know who they are either. But they sound very important.
PS This is what I’d look like if I was a man apparently. I think I’d rather earn the 18% less...