A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

When Words Change "Their" Meanings

I am a grammar snob.  While I don’t grade seminary students on the mechanics of writing, I do mark infelicities of English style and insist that communicating clearly is a matter of courtesy as well as a defense against being misunderstood.   “I don’t know what you’re thinking unless you can explain it to me”  has become my mantra.

I always find plenty of grammatical errors to mark.  One of my pet peeves is using the nominative case  of pronouns when they stand as compound objects of a preposition.   Saying “please pass the crudités to she and I” may sound fancy, but it’s wrong.   The correct phrasing is “to her and me.”    “She” and “I” are properly used when a pronoun is the subject (when the speaker is doing something); “her” and “me” when the pronoun is an object (when speakers have something done to them).  The best test, of course, is to separate the two pronouns.  If you wouldn’t say  “please pass the crudités to I” or “please pass the crudités to she,”  then you shouldn’t  say them together.


I also bristle when a comma interrupts a dependent clause.   A phrase that can be lifted out of a sentence without irreparable harm either can be set off by two commas (one on either end) or, if the phrase is short, be allowed to stand without any commas at all.  A copy editor for my last book tried to use only one comma, thereby interrupting my clause.  I protested. I forget who won.

This grammatical stubbornness comes naturally.   My mother was a very thorough high school English teacher, who just so happened to be my 10th grade English teacher.  She taught us to diagram sentences.  She drilled us on the parts of speech and on the difference between “lie” and “lay” (another grammatical mistake to which my ears are finely attuned).


I have softened over time.  I am willing to start sentences with conjunctions.   I write in occasional incomplete sentences.  I’ve even been known to split an infinitive.   I use first and second person in formal writing (“I” and “you”). I’m open to change, within reason.

That’s why the matter of gender inclusive writing is so complicated for me.   I fully support gender inclusivity, but the question is how to do it within the bounds of proper grammar.

At stake for example, is how to complete this sentence:  “Everyone should proofread _____ paper.”  In my mother’s classroom, filling in the blank with “their” was the wrong answer.  In English grammar, pronouns must agree in gender and number with their antecedent nouns.  Since “everyone” is singular and “their” is plural, the two don’t belong together.  The correct answer was “his.”    Masculine terms, we learned, are generic.  “Man,” “he, and “his” include women.

Over time, I learned how masculine/patriarchal this supposedly-generic language actually is.  Co-teaching a Women’s Studies class at Meredith College in North Carolina, I read not only the feminist theory that challenges masculine-only language but also the numerous experiments proving that when folks hear “he” they envision males.  Since then, I’ve been a tireless advocate for inclusive language.  I don’t use masculine-only language for people.  And I do not use masculine (or feminine) pronouns when referring to God.  When I’m describing how the deity is described in the Bible, I sometimes use masculine language to stress the patriarchal character of the depictions, but I’m talking about the characterization in the text, not about God-as-Godself.

I don’t find it difficult to speak inclusively while remaining grammatically correct.  Sometimes, I alternae masculine and feminine pronouns, but mostly I stick with plurals:  “All people should proofread their papers.”   Even though I applaud students’ attempts at gender inclusivity, I correct papers that mix singular and plural.

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine, however, has me rethinking my position on “their.”   In “All Purpose Pronoun,” Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman not only document the ways in which Facebook and Twitter have accelerated the search for a gender-neutral pronoun but also make a strong case for accepting “their” as generic.

One argument they offer derives from the history of English pronoun usage.  According to O’Conner and Kellerman, until the 1700’s “they” was a sexless plural. “Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine.”  In 1745, however, the linguist Anne Fisher published a grammar handbook that became extremely popular.  In it, she protested the plural use of “they” and argued that “he” should be considered generic.  Her new idea won out in most circles, even though famous writers like Byron and Dickens continued to use “they” in the older, flexible way.

O’Conner and Kellerman advocate the return of “they” to its former inclusive usage.  They back up their position with the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which accepts the singular usage of “they.”   They point to popular culture as evidence that this battle has already been won, even if a few holdouts like me haven’t yet laid down their arms.

I doubt that I will start using “they” in the singular anytime soon. I’m happy with plurals for people and with creative language for the divine one.   But I do promise to stop correcting writers who use “their” in their efforts to be gender-inclusive.   Or at least to try.


2 Responses to When Words Change "Their" Meanings

  • Is there evidence then that singular “their” ever dropped out of English (perhaps as opposed to American?) usage, if Dickens was still happy with this usage, when and for how long did it ever cease?

  • I am also bothered by the misuse of nominative and objective case of pronouns.

    There is one major exception when I can’t stand to use the correct case – the first person predicate nominative. If someone asks, “Who is there?”, I must answer, “It’s me!” That “me” should be nominative, but it just seem too pretentious to say, “It’s I”.

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