Proceed with Caution: Gender-Neutral and Plural Pronouns

How to approach pronouns in English class

“The world is still a weird place, despite my efforts to make clear and perfect sense of it.”

―Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) American journalist

How unfortunate it is that English has no gender-neutral pronoun, one to use when saying “he or she” is either too tedious or ambiguous. John McWhorter of the New Republic argues in this article that in fact we’re stuck with “she” and “he” and won’t ever be adopting “ze,” “hesh” or the other words proposed to solve this problem. McWhorter argues that pronouns are such ingrained descriptors for English speakers that we would resist any changes.

Naturally, this led me to reflect on how I approach the topic with my ESL students. As many readers know, my default advice is change the sentence into a plural. When that’s impossible, I follow the lead of many advertisers and American politicians and recommend using “they” when I meant “he or she.” (Many academic feminists prefer using the clunky “she or he” in writing, but that clunky PC phrase is almost never heard outside of universities because it is so awkward and self-conscious.)

Readers of the blog will know I also dislike the rigid enforcement of grammar rules that are really guidelines. Yet this pesky pronoun question often comes up in class, and remains a source of considerable debate among word mavens, linguists, and English professors because pronouns remain essential building blocks of English. We often need to teach this lesson quickly and clearly – and guide often confused English students. Bottomline: I agree with McWhorter that no gender-neutral pronoun will suddenly become mainstream, and I also agree that for now, “they” is the closest thing we have to one. Professional propagandists – in advertising, politics, and marketing – understand this commonsense principle.

Yet English students facing standardized exams such as the TOEFL, SAT and other standardized tests/nightmares should conform to outdated traditional grammar rules to reach target score. We write, and choose our grammar, for our audience.

Does this mean that the grammar fundamentalists are right and we’re cheating when we use “they” for a singular pronoun? Not at all. Choosing “they” makes sense in almost all real world contexts, and mature writers acknowledge and consider the context of their words. Therefore, I advise students to use “they” where it feels natural – and recognize the grammar trap if they take standardized exam.

What do you (or should I say “thou”) teach your English language students? Consider me curious.

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