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Focus on research: How ‘they’ is causing waves in language and society

Steve Bien-Aimé
Steve Bien-Aimé

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

For grammar nerds such as myself, this is an exciting time. We are experiencing a massive shift in the language thanks to the pronoun “they.”

Earlier this month, the American Dialect Society voted the singular they as its 2015 word of the year. Regarding they, voters “singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as ‘non-binary’ in gender terms,” the group said in a statement on its website.

Non-binary refers to those who do not label themselves as men or women. Throughout our country, there are a significant number of people who find the current language insufficient. For others, conceiving of a world that goes beyond male and female might prove disconcerting because they never thought that way before. Thus, we have to recognize that language has political power.

Language brings visibility to phenomena and people in society, making it important that linguistic rule-makers have recognized the singular they. This is not to say that transgender individuals did not exist previously, but now society is better accounting for their experiences. The language is changing — as it always will.

The singular they forces Americans to have potentially uncomfortable discussions regarding ideas of gender. In other countries, our language shift is not that revolutionary: for example, on Australian passports people are allowed to select “X” for their gender identities.

Value loaded

Words and grammar usage are far from objective — each illustrates different values held in societies.

Many stories regarding the presidential race have used the term “kingmaker,” even though each political party has a female candidate and there is no qualification that the U.S. president be a man. “Queenmaker” doesn’t even appear in our lexicon. The ideologies embedded in our words are so strong that we don’t even question the power imbalances that language creates.

Consider how “Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary” treats the word “chairwoman.” In 1976, the dictionary described chairwoman as a “female chairman.” The 2014 “New World College Dictionary” contains the same definition. Yet, chairman receives a more extensive definition.

This linguistic treatment of chairwoman helps describe women’s standing, or lack thereof, in the United States. A quick examination of political and business leadership indicates that men overwhelmingly hold privileged places in terms of power.

With the singular they, today’s culture is saying through language that we must create space for more members of our society.

Change is constant

The terrain for change is everywhere: from the street to the classroom, from the coffee shop to the newsroom. In our society, the news media have the biggest microphones. They can amplify anybody’s message, and when it comes to gender identity, journalists are listening to their sources and are trying to portray their subjects as accurately as possible.

Two of the standard-bearers of journalism are adapting to the changing times. The New York Times recently used “Mx.” in an article for a person who did not want to be called a man or a woman, and The Washington Post has now adopted the singular “they.”

Not everybody is happy with the singular “they.” Some say “they” should be used only as a plural pronoun, and that we should create a gender-neutral pronoun that is widely adopted. Others don’t want to even consider that people could exist outside the male-female binary; in their minds, a gender-neutral pronoun might not even be necessary.

Respect and open-mindedness will productively advance the conversation on this issue. Further, let’s remember two things: Grammatical rules are arbitrary, not absolute. Second, the purpose of grammar is to enhance clarity in our communication with one another, not to bludgeon each other over usage.

If the current language is insufficient in describing the experiences for members of our society, perhaps change is needed.

Lastly, never forget that language is ever evolving. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln said, “Four score and seven years ago”; today, we simply say 87.

Steve Bien-Aimé is a doctoral candidate in Penn State’s College of Communications. His research interests include race and gender portrayals in news and sports media. Before entering graduate school, Bien-Aimé worked as a copy editor at The News Journal in Delaware and The Baltimore Sun, and served in a variety of functions at FoxSports.com in Los Angeles, departing as deputy NFL editor.

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