Grammar is not an excuse to perpetuate the gender binary.

“A singular pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent.” It seems like an innocent comment that a professor would leave in the margins of my senior honors thesis. It’s basic grammar, right? A person walks but a group of people walk. Hannah screams but they all scream. It is grammar 101 – matching your verbs with your pronouns. But when you take a closer look, it becomes clear that our grammar has become too closely tied to a gender binary.

We should be able to refer to an ambiguous person as ‘they’ rather than ‘he or she’ so as not to assume their gender, but up until now, that was grammatically incorrect. If my feminism is intersectional, is inclusive toward nonbinary and trans* individuals, then shouldn’t my grammar be, too?

Thankfully, we are moving away from that behavior. They/their/them is now an acceptable and correct way to refer to a singular person whose pronouns are not him or her. The AP Style Guide has confirmed this by announcing that the 2017 Edition of their grammatical guidebook will include the usage of ‘they/them’ as a singular pronoun. Finally, it seems, institutions are catching up with the times, more closely aligning with inclusive behavior.

On that note, I wanted to know how you will celebrate today’s holiday, International Transgender Day of Visibility. If you don’t already have an idea of how to do that, I ask of you a few simple things:

Watch your language. You may think that it is irrelevant or innocent, but your pronoun usage matters. If you constantly find yourself saying ‘him or her,’ or using phrases like, ‘women’s health care’ notice what you are doing. Notice that you are perpetuating the binary when you use that language. It may not be intentional, but passive subscription is still subscription. Make an effort.

When you constantly refer to the people in this world as two genders – male versus female – you invalidate the identity of anyone else; by erasing them from our vocabulary, we erase them from our reality. Make the switch from binary language to more inclusive language. An example would be saying ‘people seeking abortion services’ rather than ‘women seeking an abortion’, after all, it is not only cis women who need abortion services (aka ‘women’s’ health care).

Do not assume to know someone’s preferred pronouns based on their appearance or mannerisms or voice. Always refer to someone as ‘they/them’ until otherwise prompted. Do not place your assumptions about gender onto individuals. This, again, requires a conscious effort at first, especially if you are not used to this practice.

As a cis woman, gendered pronouns is something that I still find myself struggling with. My immediate tendency is, unfortunately, to perpetuate the binary by assuming gender identity of people around me. I recognize this in myself as something that I am continuously working on. I am simply asking you all to do the same. If we all work toward a more inclusive language pattern, then it will become the norm.

Feature Image Source: Pixabay

3 thoughts on “Grammar is not an excuse to perpetuate the gender binary.

  1. I love the amount of thought and reflection you put into this. Since we are on the topic of “grammar”, I wanted to further your argument by bringing up the fact that we often name people by their minority identity. People often will point out these identities such as when they say “black olympian” “female author” “asian surgeon” “poor person.” But when it comes to people with privilege and power, those adjectives are left out. No one says there was a “white doctor” or a “male dentist.”

    It’s a double standard that reinforces and normalizes white wealthy cisgender males as those with power and higher worth, and it’s not okay. If we refer to ANYONE by their identity, we must refer to EVERYONE. The “white vet” or the “male manager” or the “wealthy man.”


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