Sunday, October 30, 2011

The perils of gender-neutral pronoun use

Trying to teach correct pronoun use to college students is - well - challenging, to say the least. Students often like to blame their confusion on previous teachers.

"But that doesn't sound very polite," is the common response I get when indicating the correct use of subjective and objective pronouns after a preposition.  "My teachers have always corrected me and said to use 'I' instead of 'me'."

The committee gave the prize to Sam and I.  Really?

But of course it should be: The committee gave the prize to Sam and me. An object case pronoun is required after the preposition to.

I'm not buying this "My teacher made me do it" explanation. Teachers have also, apparently, told my students never to start a sentence with the word because. Hmmm. Does the term "subordinate clause" ring a bell, anyone?

Pronoun agreement raises even more issues. A student should always bring their textbook to class.

Their? Since the pronoun is referring back to the word student (its antecedent) which is singular, then the pronoun should also be singular: he or she, or even the clunky he or she. But inexperienced writers tend to think they are being gender-neutral, and therefore more politically correct, in selecting a pronoun that is neither "male" nor "female."

The Globe and Mail showed the way to gender-neutral pronoun use in a recent article published online: One Supreme Court nominee confident at hearing, one struggles.  The article contains the following paragraph:

Each nominee spoke of his humble roots: Judge Karakatsanis as the daughter of Greek immigrants who opened a restaurant; Judge Moldaver as the son of a scrap-metal dealer and a homemaker-mother.

Each nominee is singular. The pronoun reference his is also singular. Correct usage.

But one of the nominees referred to later in the sentence is a "daughter" and one is a "son." The gender of the nominees isn't clear in the opening clause, and his is gender-neutral - at least as far as the English language goes.

The crux: One problem in English grammar, especially in pronoun use, is that current social sensibilities want to make everything "politically correct" (and oh, how I hate that term!). It's grammar, people! These are structural rules to help regulate the construction of sentences, not a comment on social order or male-female equality.

The antecedent each nominee is singular; gender is unspecified. The referring pronoun his is singular; gender is as neutral as English gets. 

One way to avoid this gender-selection issue would have been to revise the clause: Both nominees spoke of their humble roots.

But I love that The Globe took the tricky, singular route, with its built-in gender challenge.

"Each nominee spoke of his humble roots." Perfect!