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Even A Grammar Geezer Like Me Can Get Used To Gender Neutral Pronouns

Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the use of gender-neutral pronouns.


Other segments from the episode on August 6, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 6, 2019: Interview with Jia Tolentino; Commentary on gender-neutral pronouns; Review of album 'The Balance.'



This is FRESH AIR. There's a new effort to eliminate the gender biases implicit in our pronouns. Universities have encouraged students to choose their preferred pronouns. Newspapers have been changing their style guides, and cities are rewriting their ordinances with gender-neutral pronouns. Some recent research from Sweden suggests that using such pronouns can reduce people's sexist assumptions, but these changes have incited some very vocal opposition. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg weighs in.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Letter for letter, no part of speech gets people more worked up than pronouns do. Linguistic history is dotted with eruptions of pronoun rage. Right now, the provocation is the gender-neutral pronouns that some nonbinary people have asked to be called by so they won't have to be identified as he or she. There are several of these in circulation. Some are new words like ze and co, but some go back a ways. In fact, people have been proposing new gender-neutral pronouns for 150 years, though none has ever caught on.

But the most popular choice, and probably the most controversial one, is the familiar pronoun that people describe as the singular they. You can see why people would pick they. In everyday speech, we often use that pronoun for a single person, though only when the word or phrase it substitutes for - its antecedent, as it's called - doesn't refer to a specific individual.

So we say, somebody lost their wallet, or, if a student fails, they have to retake the course. Or the person we're referring to may be simply unknown. Your daughter's cell phone rings at the dinner table. You say, tell them you'll call them back. Male or female, one caller or several, the pronoun they is like, whatever.

That singular they goes back hundreds of years. Jane Austen's novels are bristling with sentences like, no one can ever be in love more than once in their life. But that use of the pronoun fell into disrepute in the 19th century when grammarians condemned it as incorrect and proclaimed that the so-called generic he should be used instead. The idea was that when you write, every singer has his range, the pronoun his refers to both men and women, or, as they sometimes put it, the masculine embraces the feminine.

When second-wave feminists protested in the 1970s that the generic he was sexist, they roused a storm of indignation. They were accused of emasculating and neutering the language. The chairman of the Harvard Linguistics Department charged that they were suffering from pronoun envy. William Safire warned that to accept the use of they in place of he would be to cave in to the radic-lib (ph) forces of usage permissiveness. In retrospect, those reactions betrayed the obtuseness that the psychologist Cordelia Fine calls delusions of gender.

The fact is that the pronoun he is never gender-neutral. If Sting had sung, if you love somebody, set him free, it would have brought only a male to mind. But the language required would set them free. That gender-neutral singular they has history, English grammar and gender equity on its side, and it's gradually been restored to the written language.

Schoolroom crotchets can be hard to let go of, but we've largely leveled the linguistic playing field. At least he no longer takes precedence over she. But that didn't make any provision for the rainbow of non-binary and nonconforming gender identities that have risen into public awareness in recent years. The language still required us to choose between he and she to refer to a specific individual. The singular they initially sounded awkward.

Here we can say somebody named Sandy (ph) was brushing their hair, where the pronoun replaces the non-specific somebody. That's been standard colloquial English for centuries. But when somebody says just Sandy was brushing their hair, you're brought up short. Your first thought is that they must refer to some group of people whose hair Sandy was brushing. But you can make this work if you tweak your internal grammar so that the pronoun they can refer to a specific individual. It takes some practice to get the hang of it, but the human language processing capacity is more adaptable than people realize, even for geezers like me.

When I read through an article about a non-binary person who uses they, them and their as their pronouns, the pronouns ultimately sort themselves out. In context, they're rarely ambiguous, no more than any other pronoun. Tracy (ph) should take better care of themself. Kelly (ph) hasn't made up their mind yet. That new use of they has passed muster with the AP style guide and the American Heritage Dictionary.

In theory, anybody can adopt it, whatever their gender identity. But we'll still be using he and she to refer to most individuals who identify as male and female. You can introduce new gender-neutral terms without driving out the gendered ones. Sibling has been in the language for more than 50 years, but we can still talk about brothers and sisters.

When someone says Taylor (ph) has a lot going for them, it's a fair bet that that's the pronoun that Taylor prefers to be called by. It's not a lot to ask, just a small courtesy and sign of respect. In fact, the accommodations we're being asked to make for non-binary individuals are much less far-reaching than the linguistic changes that the feminists called for 50 years ago, yet the reactions this time have been even more vehement than they were back then.

A fifth-grade teacher in Florida whose preferred pronouns are they, them and their was removed from the classroom when some parents complained about exposing their children to the transgender lifestyle. When the diversity office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville published a guide to alternative pronouns in 2015, the state legislature promptly defunded the center and barred the university from promoting the use of gender-neutral pronouns in the future. Like the classic episodes of pronoun rage in earlier eras, those weren't about pronouns at all.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information.

After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by South African composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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