Lee, thank you so much for reading, and for this very thoughtful response. In our often “noisy” society, kind messages like yours cut right through the discord and penetrate like a breath of fresh air. It’s always nice to be reminded that there are still good people in the world.
Using singular ‘they’ has certainly been a very challenging, intentional effort of unlearning rules! Just like you, I was also plagued by voices of past English teachers in protest, especially since my trans tween goes by they/them/their(s). It took me about a solid year to be able to use it fluently and without feeling awkward.
What has been interesting though, is learning about the rich history of singular ‘they.’ Like how it was widely used by all the great writers: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Dickens, Shaw, and others. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that grammar dogma changed from singular ‘they’ to the phrase “his or her,” or just “his,” meant to reflect both male and female (the masculine embraces the feminine; the masculine is more worthy, etc.) and often used as the default. I remember learning this rule in elementary school and thinking it was silly even back then.
Also interesting is how singular ‘they’ is already a natural part of our language, and how we already incorporate it into our daily lives without even realizing it:
“Did someone leave their umbrella here?”
“Every kid has their own smartphone now.”
“Wonder who our new boss will be… hope they’re a good fit for the company.”
“How can we be certain that someone doesn’t have gender dysphoria, which is causing them to be misdiagnosed with generalized anxiety and/or depression?”
“When someone says something like ‘irregardless,’ they are proving themselves illiterate.”
“If anyone forgets to wear their uniform, they’ll have to sit out for the photo.”
“When someone says ‘it’s raining cats and dogs,’ they don’t mean that literally.”
“Each one of them will have their own special hell to look forward to.”
“Nobody wants to think that they aren’t unique”
In any of those examples, why on earth would anyone substitute “he or she?” It would sound kind of ridiculous.
When you really think about it, our pronoun system here in America is fairly illogical. Perhaps even more illogical is how unyielding many of us are about changing that system. Half the time I don’t even bother asking people to use ‘they’ when referring to my child, because I know how much extra effort it takes to reframe one’s entire mindset, and also how angry some folks tend to get about the thought of such change! I mean, it is just a pronoun…
However, language matters a lot, especially for people whose gender does not match cultural assumptions & stereotypes.
American pronouns are quite the minefield. ‘You’ can be both singular and plural, as can ‘we,’ and even ‘they,’ though many people will fight to the death over this one. It’s interesting to think why we’re so attached to this whole grammar policing thing. After all, the English language is anything but static…
Thanks again so much for sharing your thoughts. It really means a lot.