Skip to content

Editor's column: Language evolves, can the brain keep up?

"I find (gender neutral pronouns) no problem in writing but speaking is another matter ... But of course this is about more than mind tricks. It’s also about respecting people’s identities — as well as their relationships with others."
preferred pronouns
Richmond News editor discusses preferred pronouns and evolving language in her latest column.

It’s never occurred to me that even though the word “you” is singular, we don’t say “you is” although we say “he is” or “she is.” Rather, we say  “you are” which is plural, like “they are.”

So, why is that?

Well, of course there is a big long explanation which refers back to Shakespearean times and all those thee(s) and thou(s). (Word nerds should google it, as it’s actually quite interesting.)

However, the issue has entered my radar because of a discussion in the car about the gender neutral pronoun “they.”

According to the driver (who was wrong, I’ll point out), language should be consistent. So if “they” is referring to a single person, the sentence should be “they likes” or “they runs.”

“Are you kidding me?” exclaimed the better-informed passenger. “Nobody says that!”

The thing about spectrum-types (at least the one I know, and the one who happened to be driving the car) is they like logic and consistency.

Regardless, it was with great satisfaction that later that day said passenger could send an email with the subject line, “Told you so!!”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which I’ll admit does acknowledge there is a consistency problem, the correct phrasing is “they are” even if “they” refers to a single person.

Why all this has become a bone of contention is the fact we have someone in our lives who wants to be referred to by the gender neutral pronoun “they.”

We’re trying hard to accommodate, and absolutely support them in their choice, but these creaky, old brains don’t switch over so easily.

I find it no problem in writing but speaking is another matter. One person suggested a little mind trick to help get in the habit: always think of the person with their pet.

Okay, I’ll try that one.

But of course this is about more than mind tricks. It’s also about respecting people’s identities — as well as their relationships with others.

I heard a fascinating podcast about a trans woman, who is also a father. 

Her kids were accepting of their parent’s trans identity, but they were not okay with the sense of losing their dad. And, for them, not being able to call that parent, “dad” signified a loss.

In that case, after a lot of open family discussions, they settled on both: dad is called “dad,” and dad is a trans woman who they refer to as she/her.

It may take a certain amount of mental gymnastics to get to that point, but it makes sense. No one wears just one hat.

Moreover, identities don’t stand in isolation, they’re also a product of relationships.

This father felt that, despite her decision to transition, her relationship with her kids, with all its history and significance, was not going to change. So she would go on not just being dad, but being called “dad.”

While it mattered to her to live her authentic self, which was as a woman, she said it also mattered to her to retain the integrity of her relationships with her children.

I’m sure some would make a different choice, and there’s certainly no right or wrong, but the debate brings up some wonderful and head-scratching questions about who we are and how we negotiate our way through the world.

Language is no small thing. It reflects and perpetuates societal attitudes and beliefs, some of which are oppressive and need to change. But just like those attitudes and beliefs, it continually evolves.

Whether I can get my brain to evolve at pace is another matter. 

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks