Yes, your pronouns are up for discussion: Neil Macdonald

Still, universities — the earliest adopters of radical language — are falling into line, writes Neil Macdonald

Interestingly, this whole matter seems to be English-specific. Other languages are less … compliant

The French language arbitrarily assigns gender, and that’s that. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

They is hot nowadays.

No, not are. Is.

As grating as it may be to those of us who still carry Strunk and White's The Elements of Style around in our heads, the singular "they" – grammatically a contradiction in terms — is breaking out of the genderless pronoun pack, loping toward general acceptance.

The singular "they" was in fact voted word of the year last January by the American Dialect Society "for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she."

As in: "Sally looked lovely. They wore a green dress, with their hair neatly arranged in a French braid."

"It looks like 'they' is going to take the cake," says Sali Tagliamonte, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto. "That's the way language works."

Xe, ne, ve...

This will not sit well with activists who demand ownership of their pronouns, and that others abide strictly by their wishes.

There are people with vaginas, and with penises, who regard themselves as non-binary, or genderfluid and who want to be referred to as "xe" or "ne" or "ve" or "hir" or "thon" or "zhe," and are building aspirational language constructions to suit their wishes.

For example: "Xe likes xemself."

As one student protester's sign declared: "My pronouns are not up for discussion."

But of course, they are.

Genderless English pronouns are neologisms, invented to suit a worldview. Following the logic of today's young warriors, I could begin demanding that my colleagues refer to me as "blort" or "zonge" with the expectation that they would respectfully begin doing so.

Still, universities — the earliest adopters of radical language — are falling into line, advising faculty to go along with whatever anyone specifies as his or her personal pronoun (my very use of "his or her" would be regarded in the academy as heteronormative and offensive).

In fact, a professor at the University of Toronto — Jordan Peterson — who has refused to use genderless pronouns, claiming that the human race is in fact binary, has been censured by both his colleagues and the university itself, accused of trampling on the rights of genderqueer students.

Jordan Peterson has refused to use gender-neutral pronouns. (jordanbpeterson.com)

He's become a hero to conservatives, and the issue has provoked lots of snark in the mainstream media. But really, he's just as intransigent as his detractors.

The more sensible, wider world tends to adapt to anything not jarring.

CBC reporter Carolyn Dunn, for example, recently filed a story about a four-year-old boy who identifies as a girl, and whose mother prefers gender-free pronouns.

Dunn's report referred to the child as "they," perhaps the first time the singular they has been used on-air by a CBC reporter. She actually referred to "their penis."

But that's as far as CBC is prepared to go, at least right now. The rule for CBC journalists is to "respect individual preferences while keeping in mind that clarity for the audience is paramount."

Back in the '90s, CBC told reporters to begin referring to fishermen as "fishers." That just annoyed the audience, and it was quietly dropped.

Similarly, "xe," or a "xemself" would, to most people, simply sound foolish, and it likely won't be common practice for a CBC reporter to utter it anytime soon.

Which, says Prof. Tagliamonte, is normal.

"There are usually several competitors," for a new form of expression, she says, "and some just drop out."

In the wider discourse, she says, "until you get to that tipping point where you have to move with the times, you still need to communicate."

'Changes happen organically'

Steven Pinker, the brilliant cognitive scientist at Harvard University, agrees.

Pronouns, he told me, "are closer to the grammatical infrastructure of the language and are processed in different parts of the brain. It's not that these items never change—we've done without thou for quite a while, and Southerners introduced y'all as a second-person plural pronoun—but the changes happen organically, and are hard to legislate."

Meaning that basically, yes, your pronouns are indeed up for discussion.

Interestingly, this whole matter seems to be English-specific. Other languages are less … compliant.

The French, for example, take a dim view of any abrupt linguistic change.

Guy Bertrand, Radio-Canada's official language adviser, laughed when I asked whether there is any serious consideration of introducing the French equivalent of "xe" or the singular they.

"Oh my God. No. Whenever someone talks about that, people roll on the floor. You cannot just create things like that. It's unheard of."

The French language arbitrarily assigns gender, and that's that.

In fact, says Bertrand, proper form in French for a female prime minister would be "Madame le premier ministre," and female directors general have appeared on French CBC specifically asking to be referred to as "Madame le directeur," rather than "Madame la directrice."

Heated debate on gender pronouns and free speech in Toronto

6 years ago
Duration 16:43
University of Toronto professors Jordan Peterson and A.W. Peet discuss the use of alternate pronouns on campus for those who say words like 'he, she, him or her' don't represent them accurately

Personally, the singular "they" still feels awkward in my mouth, but that's probably because of the years I spent at the blackboard parsing cases and antecedents and various other syntax.

Back then, the rule was that when gender is not specified, masculine is assumed.

As Pinker notes, that rule was always idiotic:

"Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?"

Rather than going for the singular "they," though, I'll probably keep looking for workarounds:

As in: "Someone once said this whole issue of genderless pronouns is what the French would call a 'probleme de riches.' That person was probably right."

This column is part of CBC's new Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


  • A previous version of this column inaccurately characterized statements by Guy Bertrand, linguistic adviser at Radio Canada. Mr. Bertrand spoke about how some women feel feminizing traditionally male titles makes them less important, but the column extrapolated that to mean he endorses the masculine case for women's titles. In fact, Radio Canada recommends feminizing.
    Nov 24, 2016 3:35 PM ET


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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