estimated read time: 3 minutes
I learned a new word this morning.
pedant: a person who annoys other people by correcting small errors and giving too much attention to minor details
You mean, my openly hostile response to the disappearance of the Oxford comma isn’t charming? My habit of editing billboards aloud on road trips isn’t adorable? My propensity to rearrange sentences beyond all reason to avoid ending them with a preposition isn’t brave and pure?
Fine then. I’m a pedant. (It rhymes with peasant for those of you who are anxious to add the word to your personal repertoire.)
But let me ask this: Who defines errors as “small,” and who decides which details are “minor”?
Yesterday, a friend posted on Facebook a Washington Post piece titled, “Sorry, grammar nerds. The singular ‘they’ has been declared Word of the Year.” My response to her post was a not-so-subtle mixture of defiance and abhorrence: “No! No no no no no! Unacceptable!” (Aren’t I cute?)
“Why,” I wailed to myself, “must we continue to pander to laziness? Is it really that difficult to type ‘he or she’ and enjoy a bit of noun-pronoun agreement? No! It’s not! Mrs. Lucky is spinning in her grave right now!” (Mrs. Lucky was a high school English teacher of mine. I don’t even know if she’s dead.)
You’re rolling your eyes at me right now, aren’t you? Who cares, right? To you, maybe this shift seems like no big deal. Well, to me, it’s a huge deal, because I care about words and the way we combine them into sentences and the way those sentences shape our world.
Plus, a singular they is just plain wrong.
Okay, maybe it’s decidedly pedant-ish to have a heart attack over such a small detail. So, I’m an annoying nerd. I get it. But hear me out, because this is where it gets really interesting.
This morning, I actually read the article. (Pro-tip: Never, ever, ever comment on an article based on the headline alone.) It’s a fascinating and entertaining piece, even for the non-nerdy among us, so it’s worth a full read, but here’s the gist of the they thing:
“It’s a way of identifying something that’s going on in the language which ties to issues of gender identity and speaks to other ways that people are using language to express themselves and present their identity.
The Post’s style guide ratified this usage last month, which caused some grammar pedants to shriek. But as Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained, the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
In the interest of authenticity, I’m going to confess to you that I don’t fully understand why someone wouldn’t want to be labeled as he or she. I’m a 45-year-old, reasonably liberal (a phrase several people in my life would label oxymoronic), let’s-hug-it-out, sorta’ intellectual, definitely empathic woman who still has moments of “Wait… what?” I actually understand transgenderism (as much as I can as someone who isn’t transgender). But not wanting to be labeled as either gender? To the point that it’s important to adopt a gender-neutral pronoun? I can’t quite wrap my head around that. But just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean I get to dismiss it.
Before I read the Post article, I pitched a fit about the earth-shattering grammatical ramifications of the singular they. But now that I’ve detached that pronoun from a rule and reattached it to human beings, it’s an easier shift to make. It’s a small thing, really (grammatically, not sociologically).
Maybe you had the opposite experience, though. Maybe, to you, the singular they was a stupid thing to have a tantrum over—until you realized why style guides are being changed. It’s not because “everyone already uses it that way anyway” (like 2013’s nod to using literally figuratively); it’s because it’s a viable alternative for people who don’t identify with other available pronouns. Maybe, to you, that feels ridiculous or wrong.
Which prompts me to ask again who defines errors as “small,” and who defines which details are “minor”?
Pedancy is in the eye of the beholder, eh?
Note: If you’re someone whose gender is non-binary, and if I’ve said something inappropriate and/or hurtful, please know it’s unintentional and I want to be corrected. If you’re offended by the idea of non-binary gender, I ask that you be cautious in your responses to this post. There’s a lot to learn about gender identity (which is completely and wholly different from sexuality identity), and I hope we can adopt a posture of curiosity rather than superiority.