At the start of every semester, I ask my students to share their preferred personal pronouns. This is part of creating a safe space in the classroom where everyone’s gender identity is respected and nobody’s is assumed.
This turns out to be far harder than you might imagine. We routinely slip up in class, using “she” for the genderqueer student who prefers “they” and then catching ourselves, only to make the same error again. We simply aren’t accustomed to using anything other than “he” or “she” as a singular personal pronoun.
As a journalism professor, I have another agenda for this first-day activity as well. Since my students are learning how to be accurate in their reporting, they need to make sure that they use the correct pronoun when they refer to people in their stories, just as they need to spell people’s names correctly.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the larger implications of this emerging awareness of gender self-determination. Not only should we respect preferred gender pronouns of people we know; we also shouldn’t assume we know the gender pronouns of strangers.
And yet we do just that, routinely. Nearly every news story that quotes a source includes, at some point, “he said” or “she said.” Perhaps the reporter checked to make sure which pronoun that source preferred, but probably not in most cases.
Moreover, why is it anybody’s business whether a person quoted in a story prefers a female, male or gender-neutral pronoun? Unless the person’s gender is relevant to the story, this information is as immaterial as whether the person is thin or obese, tall or short. It’s personal.
This reminds me of the dilemma faced by women who, until the late 1960s, were referred to as either Miss (unmarried) or Mrs. (married). It took the feminist movement to popularize the marriage-neutral title Ms. (which wasn’t adopted by the New York Times until 1986).
One of the sticking points for gender-neutral pronouns is the history of “they” as a plural pronoun. But that is only recent history. Numerous singular-they advocates have found examples of “they” used with a singular antecedent by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, as well as by more modern writers, including C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll and Walt Whitman.
Many contemporary grammar gurus are coming out in favor of the singular “they.” Grammar Girl, the hip podcast series and New York Times bestselling advice book, embraced the singular “they” in 2011, though with this caveat: “It takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use ‘they’ with a singular antecedent today.” Still, Grammar Girl’s Mignon Fogarty advises those in charge of their organization’s style guide, “I would even encourage you to do so.”
John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun has been urging the same thing since 2013. “Break the cycle,” he wrote after attending a conference of the American Copy Editors Society. “Be bold, brave, and resolute. Don’t cower to sticklers and peevers. If you want to say that singular they is acceptable in all but the most formal English, that should do for just about everything in journalism.”
So here is my bold, brave and resolute prediction: By the time my students are in charge of their organizations’ style guides, we’ll be well past the time when anybody questions whether “they” is a valid singular personal pronoun. Instead, we’ll be phasing out “he” and “she” unless a person’s gender is relevant to the story.
Just as marital status is irrelevant outside of wedding stories, gender identity has no bearing in most news stories. The city hall spokesperson can take heart in seeing their quotes attributed to them by reporters who rely on their authority as a source and don’t interject personal information into the story.