The fact that the English language has no neutral singular personal pronoun has long vexed linguists, writers, and college freshmen. It’s also a problem that’s been in the news in recent years. In 2015, TheWall Street Journalreported growing acceptance of the use of “they” as a singular pronoun among copy editors. Later linguists at the American Dialect Society voted “they” as the 2015 Word of the Year. And in March of this year, the Associated Press announced it (they?) would change its style guide to include the use of “they” as a singular pronoun as one option among other more preferred choices.
The development is prompted by increased awareness of gender dysphoria and a corresponding resistance to the gender binary altogether. The use of “they” (or “them” in the objective case) offers a seeming solution when referring to a person whose gender is unknown or a person who does not identify with a gender.
This practice raises two categories of concern: grammatical and cultural.
In his manual, Modern English Usage, Bryan Garner calls the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun an “inadequacy of the English language” that manifests itself in numerous ways. Grammatically, of course, it seems at first glance silly and wrong to write (and judge as correct) sentences such as, “Maggie starts college in the fall. They will go to Yale.” While the AP style guide offers more desirable workarounds to such a construction, the new guideline allows this sort of use.
On the other hand, most of us use third-person plural pronouns incorrectly all the time, most commonly when we state something such as, “Everyone brought their favorite dish.” Everyone is singular, so the grammatically correct way to say this is, “Everyone brought his or her favorite dish.” In fact, as many grammarians and historians point out, the use of “they” or “their” as a singular can be found throughout the history of the English language: from Chaucer to Shakespeare to the Bible to Jane Austen (whose use of it was so frequent that there is a whole website devoted to examples in her work). It was reportedly the Victorians who put an end to use of the singular “they,” instructing that the single male pronoun was sufficient as it could be understood to imply the female. Obviously, such thinking isn’t acceptable now. As descriptivist grammarians and linguists are wont to say, language is always evolving and changing. The rejection of “they” as a singular pronoun occurred only in a small slice of English language history.
Barry McCarty, Professor of Rhetoric and Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me that using “they,” “their,” and “them” as singular pronouns is a far better option than the “hideous” alternatives “s/he,” “he/she,” or “themself.” McCarty agrees with Garner’s prediction that “they” will, as with all shifts in usage, eventually sound right to our ears and is the “ultimate solution” to the grammatical problem.
Yet, the current development in the news isn’t about grammar, as its advocates and early adopters readily acknowledge. It is about accommodating a cultural shift in which gender is no longer seen as biological or fixed.
For Christians like me who want to affirm the physical and biological realities of the bodies God has wondrously created as male or female, the use of gendered personal pronouns is about more than grammar: it’s about anthropology, sociology, ontology, and theology. I no more want to perpetuate an illusion about the laws of biology than I would want to do so about the law of gravity. Yet, human beings—and human relationships—are even more complicated than gravity.
We should take great pause before we let the exception become the rule, whether in matters of gender or grammar.
In most circumstances, when we meet people for the first time, we call them by whatever name they give us. We are not accustomed to people telling us what gender they are simply because it is usually obvious (although Saturday Night Live had a lot of fun in the 1990s with this in the character of Pat.) With transgender identity taking a more prominent place in the culture, it won’t always necessarily be obvious what a person’s sex is and, as with a person’s name, we will be left to go by whatever pronoun we are given.
However, this principle works both ways. If a person indeed wants to be identified with the pronoun of his or her biological sex, then the correct singular pronoun should be used. This isn’t what a Brown University dean did recently in communication with the family of a newly admitted female student whom the dean referred to with the third person plural pronoun, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. In response to objections, a university official explained that Brown’s admission office “typically refers to applicants either by first name or by using ‘they/their’ pronouns. While the grammatical construction may read as unfamiliar to some, it has been adopted by many newsrooms and other organizations as a gender-inclusive option.”
It is one thing (and a significant thing at that) to accommodate one person’s desire not to be identified with a particular gender. It is another thing altogether to employ a plural pronoun in such a way as to erase the genders of the vast majority of people who embrace their sex as given by their Creator.
We should take great pause before we let the exception become the rule, whether in matters of gender or grammar. Writers are fond of saying that one must know the rules before breaking them. To break the rules of gender and pronouns depends on the existence of those rules.
Thus the grammatical and the cultural cannot be entirely separated. And that is what Christians really must remember in this ongoing development. Nietzsche’s insight, articulated in Twilight of the Idols, is apt: “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” Grammar matters because God—the Word from which rationality, order, and grammar flow—matters.