Throw out the rules: the American Dialect Society beans the binary

by Darby Ratliff

Opinion Editor

Grammar Nazis, prepare yourselves. Take a minute. Think about declensions and conjugations and about charts of personal and objective pronouns. Calm yourselves with irregular verbs. The American Dialect Society has made quite the stride in the ways of gender neutrality. Singular “they” was voted “word of the year” by the organization. This is largely because of the movement away from the gender binary that has led to so many complications in trying to refer to those who do not necessarily identify within the parameters of he/him/his or she/her/hers.

This is certainly an issue that will cause some to turn up their noses in the face of new standards, preferring to continue to avoid the formerly plural pronoun. In terms of speech, people already frequently say things such as “a person walked their dog today,” even though traditional grammatical style says that “a person walked his or her dog today” because “person” is singular and “their” is plural. This isn’t why the American Dialect Society made their decision to do so, but it is certainly a side effect now sanctioned.

Sex is biological. It’s a way that people are born, and it is inherently complicated, given that one can be born male, female, intersex, amid others. Gender, however, is socially constructed, and pronouns are assigned on a gendered, heteronormative basis. Either someone is a “he” or a “she.” There is no leeway, except for those who suggest “it” as a viable option. However, “it” is a pronoun with a negative connotation. We aren’t going to go around referring to people as “it.” I don’t even like when people refer to their pets as “it.” It’s a word associated with the “other.” It’s separating those who conform within the binary from those who do not, and those who do not identify as a he or a she already have enough difficulty explaining themselves in a traditional society, even though that shouldn’t be what they have to do. Our language is not necessarily as gendered, but there are some that certainly are. Latin genders everything, and while few in the world speak Latin, it shows the linguistic roots of a gendered society.

“They” is odd. It’s weird to adopt something that blatantly defies everything that Schoolhouse Rock tried to teach us as children. It forces us to change our vernacular surrounding singular people, but it still doesn’t require us to change everything about the way that we speak. To some, it’s a large concession to a changing social atmosphere, but, in the long run, if we’re able to make someone feel more comfortable with themselves and/or their gender identity, is that too high of a cost? Is it so hard for me to change the way in which I speak when someone has to change their whole life? No, and I love grammar. I love punctuation and talking about semicolons and appositives. I love my nouns and pronouns, but this is something that I can do. It’s something I’m happy to change if I can make someone’s life easier.



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