All my writing life, I have been hammered with rules such as “the subject and the predicate must match.” So imagine my confusion when Granddaughter commenced telling a story one night this week in which she reported, “Sally said they did not feel safe.”
The story was about one person, an acquaintance who felt at risk being around people who might have been exposed to Covid-19. Every time Granddaughter – who modesty requires me to stipulate is a granddaughter by marriage, but nonetheless quite a storyteller – spoke of the singular Sally, she used the plural pronoun.
It turns out, Granddaughter’s acquaintance chooses to be referred to with the “non-binary” pronoun. “They declines” to be identified, or to identify others, as male or female – or any of the genders listed in the noun “LGBTQPAI+” – the plus sign being a place-keeper for any genders yet to be discovered.
I was raised to believe the masculine pronoun referred to both genders (though to be honest, “gender” in my younger days usually referred to sex and one did not allude to, much less speak of, sex in “mixed company.”
In a movie we watched recently, a girl remarking about her mother’s dating attire quipped, “Mom, I’m 12. I’m not dead.” That conversation would not have taken place when I was 12 years old. At the tender age of 12 summers, I did not know my mother was pregnant until the day she brought home my new sister from the hospital.
Mother was our family’s representative of the written – and by extension, spoken – word. She kept me supplied with books in which I traveled the globe, learned to drive a car and fly an airplane, and filled out my understanding of history. I learned that bys and girls liked each other – though not why.
Another thing my mother and my favorite high school English teacher had in common was an aversion to mismatched tenses and numbers. They were rules, at the time, possession biblical authority – though in the decades since, I have broken or obeyed with varying degrees of deliberateness. Tom or Sally, for instance, had always been a singular noun, and paired with a singular pronoun.
Yet there I was, sitting my living room, listening to Granddaughter say, with absolutely no hesitancy, phrases such as “they declines,” the subject and the predicate in clear disagreement. I finally had to ask for clarification.
“You’re talking about the one young woman, aren’t you?” I asked.
She, in the same manner I might have explained how water becomes clouds, gave me the meaning of that new usage. “They” includes everyone. No one is left out. When the discussion involves particular people engaged in activities where the label matters, the label is applied. Otherwise, for such people as insurance salespeople or airline pilots or jewelry store clerks, who are thus referred to as “they.”
I would have liked, when the Founders declared “All men are created equal,” they would have found some farmer’s wife to explain, “By men, they mean everybody.” Evolution is fraught with examples of imperfections in the invention of new tools, though I must admit “they” is a bit smoother than “he or she” in a sentence, and it fell to lawyers who, over the next two-and-a-half centuries and counting, have found it profitable to create and expand a list of just who is meant by the word “men.” The result is those three puny letters no longer are able to fully contain the string embodied in LGBTAPAI+.
One day we will have to shorten that word. Maybe to something like “human.”
Thanks for joining me on a wander at the Edge of the Wood. I hope it added a little something to your day. As always, comments are welcome, and please feel free to share it with friends and acquaintances.