When gender meets grammar

Artwork by Paul Berge

By Sarah Sidlow

Like most of you, I’m pretty religious about following the changes made to the AP Stylebook—you know, the bible for all things punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. Just me? Oh.

Well, for copy editors and nerds of all stripes, changes to AP Style are a big, flippin’ deal. Those changes, and the ways we consider language use, also usually point to the broader issues we consider on a daily basis.

So, when it became public that the use of “they” as a singular pronoun would be acceptable in some cases, lots of people (nerds) slammed down their “Grammar Rules!” coffee mugs and took note.

Quick review: singular pronouns are the words you use to refer to individual objects—“it,” “anybody,” “he,” “she.” “They” has traditionally been a plural pronoun—one that refers to more than one person.

But it’s the 21st century, baby, and things aren’t so black and white anymore. And when we’re talking about gender, frankly, sometimes things can get a little confusing.

In fact, singular “they”—a gender-neutral pronoun—was named 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. (I know you’re wondering, and yes, “they” beat out “thanks, Obama,” “ammosexual,” and “on fleek.”)

We know that using “they” is a common habit in American speech, even though, until recently, it was grammatically incorrect. But its usefulness in describing people who don’t want to be referred to as “he” or “she” is likely the reason it’s been officially accepted.

And while lots of old-fashioned grammarians are disappointed, many argue that this adoption is exactly what language is all about: evolving to fit the needs of a changing society. With gender-specific bathrooms and locker rooms also up for debate, it’s clear that many of us are ready to reconsider what we think we know about gender and how fluid it can be.

But not everyone agrees. Some merely take issue with the pronoun thing. Sure, language can evolve—but when it evolves merely because of people’s laziness, that’s not great.

And some opponents are arguing for more than just specificity in speech. Some argue that the language change is ludicrous because there are only two genders, and everyone fits into one of them, all the time.

Many argue that genders, and the roles that accompany them, are necessary. Biologically, most women, for example, aren’t as good at carrying heavy fire equipment into burning buildings as men. It’s nobody’s fault. They’re just built differently. Biologically, it’s very difficult for men to become pregnant and carry a baby to term (as much as some women may wish that role were reversible).

Gender, some argue, is unavoidable—good or bad, right or wrong, it’s a thing we need to accept.

Does language impact the way we think about and perceive our world? Definitely. So, what does this grammar change tell us about whom we are? TBD.


Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should “they” be a substitute for “he” and “she”?

The platinum rule

‘They’ should simply stay

By Petey Peterson

The golden rule, we are taught, means to treat others the way you want to be treated. Instead, I ask you to adopt the platinum rule: treat others the way they want to be treated.

I am not making a case for “they” to replace “she” or “he” altogether, but rather for recognition of the “singular they”—especially when someone requests that you refer to them this way. This is also known as using gender neutral or gender inclusive pronouns.

It is first important to note that all languages are socially constructed and, therefore, evolve over time. The English Oxford Living Dictionaries state, “Despite objections, there is a trend to use ‘singular they.’ In fact, it is historically long established. It goes back at least to the 16th century, and writers such as Shakespeare, Sidney, Byron, and Ruskin used it: There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me as if I were their well-acquainted friends (Shakespeare’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’). Whether it is grammatically correct is a matter of opinion.”

Another similar case is the use of “everyone.” “Everyone” can be considered plural in meaning and grammatically singular, so they match semantically.

It is also simply more practical to use “they” when you are referring to someone of an unknown gender. We already do this in our everyday conversations. If you walked into a building and saw a cellphone laying on a table (first, I would hope you turn it into the lost and found), most of us would say, “Someone lost their cellphone.” So when a person asks you to use “they,” “them,” “their” pronouns when referring to them, you can do it—it’s easy, and it shows you respect them. Plus, it’s a way to combat sexism in our everyday language.

I have worked at several colleges and universities and I have served on several search committees for director, vice president, and president positions. More often than not, when we are discussing the role and the unknown person who will fill it, many people will only use “he,” “him,” “his” pronouns. This implies that only a man would get this role, and we often do not even realize we are doing this or thinking this way. For those who are more conscious of this, we then will hear them say, “well, he or she,” and they will keep saying “he or she” over and over again. This becomes unnecessary and distracting, especially when repeated in the same sentence or statement. Using “they” is a simple and easy solution. Again, “they” does not have to completely replace all “he” or “she” pronouns, but can be useful in such instances.

“Singular they” pronouns are a way to utilize language to be more gender inclusive. This is the most important reason the “singular they” pronoun should be used and respected. One of the first things we do when we meet new people is learn their names and how they want us to address them. When we ignore the name and the pronouns someone asks us to use when referring to them, we actively disrespect them—it signals that we do not value some of their most basic needs.

When I was in elementary school, I looked similar to another classmate named Jamie. Although I could understand why my teacher would sometimes confuse us and call me Jamie, it happened again and again until it was as if my teacher did not even see me. After a while, I felt invisible and began to act invisible. I participated less in class, I rarely raised my hand, even if I knew the answer, and I stopped volunteering to lead any class activities.

How people see us and address us affects how we see ourselves. When we name what we expect and need of others and they continue to make excuses or ignore those requests, we participate or engage with them less and less. Because it feels like we’re not even there.

I am not asking you to starting using “they” to replace “she” and “he.” Instead, I am asking you to use “they” when someone tells you that is what they need or expect you to do for them.

Ultimately, it’s not about grammar, linguistics, or the English language; it’s about respecting another person’s basic dignity.


Petey Peterson is the first director of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Ally (LGBTQA) Affairs at Wright State University. Reach them at

‘They’ must fall

We must abide by Standard English to unite us

By Tim Walker

Let us agree on one thing here at the start (because God knows we may not agree on much else from this point on)—English is the language that the vast majority of American citizens speak, and English is the language through which we define ourselves as a nation, as a population, and as a society. While acknowledging that there are citizens who speak or write in different languages, as this melting pot of a country still welcomes citizens from all nations—or did, before our current POTUS took office—English remains the universal American language, the standard-bearer, the mother tongue.

If you as an individual are attempting to communicate an idea to one of your fellow citizens, whether by speaking or by writing words on paper or screen, then it is clear from the outset that your primary goal is to be understood. In other words, your intended recipient should grasp your meaning as quickly and efficiently as possible. Your words should be clear and concise. Just as a dirty plate glass window makes it difficult for passers-by to discern what is for sale inside the shop, so a convoluted or poorly worded sentence makes it difficult for the writer’s intended meaning to shine through.

Standard English, as you may remember from those dreary days of high school, has rules, rules that govern grammar, syntax, and punctuation. These rules, while not universally accepted, exist for a very good reason—because if we can agree on anything, then we can agree that in order to communicate with each other, we must speak the same language.

Yes, but Hemingway broke the rules, you might argue, and Joyce and Vonnegut, too, and they’re considered great writers. All true, of course, but those literary geniuses, to whom we mere mortals can’t even begin to compare ourselves, broke the rules not out of ignorance, but out of a desire to circumvent them, to use English in new and exciting ways. Surely we lowly scribblers, lacking their genius, are better off learning the rules and abiding by them.

In March of this year, the Associated Press Stylebook, arguably the most respected arbiter of style and word choice in American journalism, made a bonehead move and added an entry for “they” as a singular and gender-neutral pronoun. “We stress that it’s usually possible to write around that,” Paula Froke, lead editor for the Stylebook, subsequently said in a blog post on the American Copy Editors Society’s website. “But we offer new advice for two reasons: recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she.”

I’m sorry, but I couldn’t disagree more. That way madness lies. “They,” if it is to mean anything, is a plural pronoun. “He” or “she” are correspondingly singular pronouns, if they are to mean anything at all—if words themselves are to mean anything at all. It is possible to write about gender-fluid persons, about transgendered individuals from all points of view, using the proper pronouns and accepted rules of English, and to do so in a way that is not insulting or disrespectful in any way. Change is good, yes—change is a necessary part of life—but making arbitrary changes to our language in order to appease this or that pressure group is not only unwelcome, but dangerous.

Facebook, text messages, hastily written notes on scraps of paper—these are the ways through which we now communicate in this modern world. When spelling, literate sentence construction, and punctuation fly out the window on every social media and blog post, when language begins to break down due to the constraints of a 140-character tweet, when college students begin adding non sequiturs like “lol” to their term papers in English class, then we are in the midst of a communication crisis in this country.

Call me a “grammar Nazi,” if you must. Say, as I have seen some say on Facebook, that only prissy, college-educated, entitled individuals worry about such things as language, syntax, and punctuation, and that Standard English is nothing more than a tool that the upper classes use to keep down disadvantaged and poorly-educated people in this country.

I disagree, for this reason: if we cannot agree on our spoken or written language, on how to use it to communicate with each other, then we place ourselves at a disadvantage. If people from all walks of life can’t use a common language in order to share our ideas and experiences, then where does that leave us?

If we can’t understand each other, the enemy wins.


Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach him at

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Petey Peterson is the first director of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Ally (LGBTQA) Affairs at Wright State University. Reach them at

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