â€œI donâ€™t know who called; they didnâ€™t leave a message.â€ Does that sound odd to you? It probably doesnâ€™t, and chances are, you donâ€™t even know why we would ask. Hereâ€™s a hint: itâ€™s about that little pronoun, â€œthey.â€ The use of singular they has become quite a hot topic lately, and it may be more complicated than you think. We present here four items that examine the subject from diverse angles. First, journalist and radio host Rebecca Kruth speaks with linguist Anne Curzan on the NPR program â€œThatâ€™s What They Say.â€ Next, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo argues that we should all use they instead of he or she, and they explain why. In a Medium essay, writer and podcast producer Brian Fabry Dorsam responds to Manjooâ€™s essay and details their objections to it. Finally, Jennifer Fumiko Cahill, arts and features editor of a northern California weekly newspaper, explainswhy she declines to use her friendâ€™s preferred pronouns.
We suggest you read/listen to all four pieces before responding to any of the questions. (Please note: When an author has indicated their preferred pronoun, we use that pronoun; Manjoo and Dorsam have each indicated they.)
1. Kruth & Curzan point out that singular they is used in two distinct ways; what are those ways? Summarize them. Although the two usages are distinct, they raise a single concern with regard to verb agreement; what is that concern? Do Kruth & Curzan think the concern is a serious cause for alarm? Why or why not?
2. Manjoo embraces the widespread use of singular they as a way to diminish the damage caused by a rigidly gendered society. Why does Manjoo object to gender? What is the specific harm they claim it causes? Does their argument have any validity for you? Why or why not? Explain your reasoning.
3. What does Dorsam mean by the statement â€œNeutrality is a privilege afforded to the dominantâ€? Summarize their explanation. Do you agree with Dorsamâ€™s assertion? Why or why not?
4. Cahillâ€™s essay is a satire (we hope you noticed!). To explain why she canâ€™t refer to her friend as â€˜they,â€ she illustrates her views on grammar with numerous outrageous statements, for example, that the only reason sheâ€™s not currently in a relationship with actor Idris Elba is that she canâ€™t tolerate his use of British spellings. Taken all together, itâ€™s clear to us that Cahill is being humorous, but many of her assertions come very close to arguments that people actually make in order to justify their refusal to respect someoneâ€™s pronouns. Have you heard (or perhaps used) any of these justifications? Recount the experience.
5. Singular they is both a social issue and a matter of grammar/usage customs. Kruth & Curzan principally address the grammar/usage aspects, although they touch on the social element in their discussion of respect. The other three pieces focus principally on the social aspects of singular they, and each authorâ€™s attitudes about the grammar side of the subject are very congruent with their attitudes about gender as a social category. What is each authorâ€™s attitude toward usage and grammar norms, and how is that attitude reflected in their position about gender and gender-marked pronouns? Explain your reasoning.
6. The speaker in Cahillâ€™s satire offers â€œreasonsâ€ for declining to use her friendâ€™s pronoun, and nearly every point that the speaker raises is addressed by one (or more) of the other articles here. For example, the speaker complains about standing in the supermarket checkout line and not being able to safely assume â€œwhat kind of reproductive organs everybody was packing,â€ and that exact point is called out for criticism early in Manjooâ€™s essay. Identify three other arguments raised by Cahillâ€™s speaker that are addressed and rebutted by one of the other authors. Point to the relevant passages in the articles and explain how they relate to one another.
7. Pronouns, of course, arenâ€™t the only way that gender is obligatorily marked in English. For example, when you are in a store or other public space and want to address someone or get their attention, your choices are quite limited: maâ€™am, miss, sir, and a few other mainly gender-marked terms like dude. To say hey, you is rude, and hey, person is totally unheard of. What are some of the other ways that English grammar and social customs require us to use gendered reference? Describe two other contexts. How do you navigate addressing people in public and/or social contexts? Do you sometimes consciously avoid using gendered terms, whether pronouns or otherwise? When and why? When someoneâ€™s gender might not be clear to you or if a gender-neutral option isnâ€™t available, do you use the gender that seems most obvious to you and hope youâ€™re right? Do you care whether youâ€™re right? Why or why not? Are preferred pronouns problematic to you? Why or why not? Write an essay in which you address the questions and concerns posed here. Where it may be relevant to do so, reference the four items in this Conversation.