Pool: What’s up with 'they' today?

I belong to perhaps the last generation educated with an attention to English grammar. Indeed, not long after graduation, “English” classes became “Language Arts” courses.

For a long time, I’ve had a problem with “they.” Just when I was ready to throw down the paddle and drift down the muddy river of grammatical vulgarity, something else threatens to snag me.

In Foster Junior High School I was taught that, since pronouns must agree with their antecedents, a sentence with a singular subject must take a singular pronoun.

Usually we do it without thinking much about it. Nevertheless, I was taught that “Each student should get out their books” was incorrect.

Instead, the explanation went, because “each” is singular, the pronoun referring to it must also be singular. Thus, “Each student should get out his books” was prescribed as a solution to this agreement violation.

What about students who were not of the male sex? (Back then, “gender” was still a linguistic term, not what it has come to mean today, a substitute for the sex of a person.)

I remember thinking it was rather unfair to use the masculine “he” to refer to people who might not be male. No, my female teachers solemnly intoned, “he” simply encompassed both “he” and “she.”

A concern for gender equity has superseded a passion for strict pronoun agreement — I accept that. I’ve worked with several alternatives, such as making the subject plural: “All students should get out their books.”

For years I tried to convey this truth to my students. They didn’t listen, and other people’s students didn’t listen, and time passed, and nowadays, “Each student should take out their book” is probably used more often than “Each student should take out “his or her book.”

It still feels natural for me to write and talk the old way, though I still try to not split infinitives, and I still think a preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with.

I’ve thrown in the towel, raised the white flag, faced the final curtain. Each must choose the metaphorical hill they will die on.

It’s not the first time English has shifted this way. “You” used to be plural until the 15th century. We still say “you are” to one person, not “you is.” The formerly used pronouns, “thou” and “thee,” are usually encountered these days only in historical texts like Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Yet suddenly, “they” comes bobbing back to the surface. Recently the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which sees itself reflecting rather than dictating popular use, has introduced the gender-neutral singular pronoun “they” to refer to people who do not identify exclusively as male or female.

The phenomenon of transgenderism, a 21st-century social construct, involves changes in language as well as a redefinition of what it is to be a man or a woman.

For many people, especially young ones, gender identity is based on fluid subjective feelings, which can change over time, and nothing else.

This fluidity is not based on biological sex or even sexual orientation, according to its proponents. In fact, some support this radical revision by claiming that binary gender is a modern concept caused by “Judeo-Christian colonization.”

Some call themselves gender fluid, or gender-fluid, or genderfluid. Even the way to write it seems to be, well, fluid.

It is far beyond the scope of this column to try to deal with this phenomenon, but just when I accept “they” as a singular pronoun, suddenly I learn it also conveys transgender ideology.

Everyone must figure this out for themself. I’ll ponder that as I drift downstream.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School. His column appears Tuesday.

Today's Bible verse

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

— Psalm 42:11

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