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Changing pronouns: Editor's Notes #365
May 18, 2022

Maybe that's just what happens;
you start out wanting to change the world through language, and end up thinking it's enough to tell a few jokes.

—David Nicholls

In this issue:

1. Changing pronouns
2. Tickled my funny bone
3. Interesting Web site
4. Writing prompt

1.Changing pronouns
About ten years ago, a response to an issue of Editor’s Notes took me to task for using he or she in a sentence such as A writer often does what he or she can to enlist family members to help with chores. The reader strenuously argued against including feminine pronouns in such general statements. In his mind, and he IS a man, such language aimed at changing the world. He was right. Those who changed the use of the gendered pronouns were not just telling jokes.

I grew up in a world where it was unthinkable to use feminine pronouns unless only women were being referenced. Even one male in a group demanded masculine pronouns. Looking back, I am amazed that I didn’t recognize how that grammar "rule" erased my own existence or made that existence dependant on a man, but it did.

I am not an early adopter of any change, but it’s time for another change, and this one is also unlikely to end up as a joke. This time, the pronoun change abandons gendered pronouns altogether in favour of the neutral they, them, and their. I’ve struggled with this one because this not only removes references to gender, but also the markers of number: both currently refer to more than one person. I frankly feel discombobulated when I read text that uses the plural third person to refer to singular people. But when I stop emoting and put on my thinking cap, I am reminded of a story from my own life.

Twenty-eight years ago, I lived in eastern Ukraine with a family that did not speak any English. I had only eight Russian words. Communication was interesting. When my language skills improved, I had a conversation with a friend who could not understand how English speakers could manage with only one version of you instead of the options of singular and plural Russian has. Although I had to admit that there could be confusion, I clearly confessed and still confess that I manage, as do the rest of us. I’m guessing that if we do finally end with they, them, and their in acknowledgement that some people do not identify exclusively as being either gender, we will adapt to living without the clarity that has existed with the historical pronouns that mark number.

I’m writing about this before I’m totally comfortable with the change, so you may see me continuing to use the gendered pronouns from time to time because I may slip up on occasion.

If you are interested in my editing skills on this issue, my job is to help the writer to be clear. At this time, I would say the use of these pronouns is up to each writer. I would go even further and say that the use of these pronouns depends on each piece of text. A big problem would be mixed use within one piece of text. If anyone was doing that in a text submitted to me, I would draw attention to the problem and suggest the writer choose which set of pronouns to use in any particular text and then edit carefully to be sure there are no slip-ups.

PS. This is only one example of what editing technology can NOT do for you. A grammar checker is going to have a problem with this for the foreseeable future as English-speakers worldwide sort out this change.

2.Tickled my funny bone
I accidentally tried to milk a bull.
It was udder confusion.

3. Interesting Web site
This link takes you to a page of information about pronoun changes that goes beyond what I’ve written above.

4. Writing prompt
Try it out. Write out a passage from a newspaper story (or an online news story) replacing the gendered pronouns with other pronouns. Feel free to use the link above for some examples of alternate pronouns.

I am interested in how this makes you feel, so know that if you tell me, I’ll be a happy camper.

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