I want to apologize today to the hundreds of students whose papers suffered my red, and later purple, ink to note an error in pronoun agreement for the use of the plural they instead of the singular he or she.
Having grown up with parents who spoke a heavy Appalachian dialect, I was forced to learn Standard English as a second language when I decided my freshman year in college that I loved language and literature and wanted to share my passion for great writers. When I decided to become an English teacher, I worked hard to make the rules I’d learned from my high school English teachers a part of my spoken language. The first time I went back home for a break, I practiced my new dialect…until one of my friends said to me, “Will you stop with the i-n-gs! You sound like you’re readin’ out of a book.”
That was the moment, years before I heard the term, that I learned to codeswitch—to shift back and forth between the dialect I’d learned at home and the language I needed to use in the English classroom. For many years, I told my students when I taught grammar that I wasn’t trying to change the language they used with family and friends. But I also didn’t want them to be at a disadvantage when they went into a job market where they might lose a position because the interviewer equated their use of language with their intellect.
Nine years into my teaching career, I moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where most students at that time came from highly educated families who expected their children to speak and write flawless English. Once, when I graded a reading check on the written content but didn’t mark errors, I got an email from a parent who was outraged because his son, who had offered unusually keen insights on the reading, got a perfect score despite the fact that he had made two grammatical errors. I tried to explain that I didn’t mark every error on informal written responses but that I did mark them on formal essays and that I used portfolios to help students learn to correct their own errors. I went on to explain that research shows that when students receive papers that are full of red (or purple) ink, they actually pay little attention to anything the teacher writes.
I couldn’t satisfy that outraged parent, who suggested that I just didn’t want to put in the time it would take to mark papers carefully. During my entire career in the classroom, I tried to find a balance between calling students’ attention to errors and letting them know that their ideas and their sound thinking were important. Sometimes I failed, and for that I apologize to any of my former students who are reading this.
I thought about that parent, after I attended a funeral recently where the officiant could not bring himself to use either a plural or a masculine pronoun in reference to God. He went to such lengths to avoid gender-specific pronouns that he tangled himself up in the repetition of the wordGod: “God does not hide Godself off in a corner of the heavens when we are in pain. God speaks to us through God’s presence that brings God’s comfort when we need it most.”
Though I empathized with the pastor’s dilemma, I had to rein in my urge to laugh. Does he not realize that the very word God is masculine? I thought. But then I thought about how many English teachers I know who fail to understand the dilemma students face when trying to use gender sensitive language. And it was only near the end of my years in the classroom that I started to wonder when students made a pronoun error whether they were ignorant of the rule or whether they were rebelling against the long-held tradition of using the word his.
The National Council of the Teachers of English actually published a position paper entitled Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language. They and most style manuals suggest writing in such a way as to avoid the use of singular pronouns at all when possible.
Do we really care that much about correct grammar? The popularity ofGrammar Girl would say that, indeed, we do. Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty has become rich and has won numerous awards for her sensible approach to balancing clarity and the need for rules. She has several posts about the complexities of the he/she/they debate that have garnered hundreds of comments. She acknowledges that our language has a “big, gaping hole” for a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
And while this may just be an irritant to those of us who want the rules to serve our sound thinking, it is treacherous terrain for religious leaders who can scarcely use they in reference to the one God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. So do they use he and risk alienating more progressive members of their congregations? Do they use she sometimes and risk alienating their more conservative members? Or do they avoid pronouns altogether and risk derisive laughter from their congregants?
So tell me a story of your God/Goddess and how you talk about him/her/it/them. And I’m home now, so it’s okay to make me laugh aloud.