Stephen Lewis: Holding fast to gender pronouns

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael StumpStephen Lewis.

Instagram tells me that my granddaughter “Izzy has added to their story.”

That sentence does not sit well in my ear. I am reasonably certain that my granddaughter is one person. How did she morph into several Izzys so as to require the plural “their” rather than “her”?

My brain tells my ear to relax and accept the fact that social media have hoisted the white flag of surrender concerning the troublesome gender issue in pronoun usage.

Pronouns are supposed to share the grammatical personality, including gender, of the nouns they replace. But English nouns do not show gender in a formal sense, such as ending with an o, while the singular pronouns that replace them do: he, she, it, for masculine, feminine, and neuter. Thus, there is a mismatch between non-gendered nouns and gender specific pronouns in a system that demands that they agree with each other.

For example, if the non-gendered noun “lawyer” is to be replaced by the gender specific pronoun, the old rule was to use the male pronoun "he." That usage made some sense when all lawyers were men, but not now when I have two daughters who are attorneys, and I think I heard that a couple of uppity women lawyers now sit on the Supreme Court.

Our language, resistant to change, has not caught up to this new reality. Oh, it tried. Its solution was to hedge, producing a sentence such as, “A good lawyer should know what he or she is doing.” That fixes the problem in a clumsy kind of way. That solution is often tightened to “he/she,” which may or may not be a small stylistic improvement. But there is no escaping the fact that it is not pleasing.

Some feminists thought the answer was to use "she" in all such cases, as a kind of payback. That idea did not take.

Which brings us to the present use of the gender-free plural pronoun "they": “A good lawyer should know what they are doing.” Gender issue resolved at the expense of a glaring logical problem. One lawyer is made to morph into more than one just as my granddaughter Izzy is referred to by the plural possessive "their" instead of the accurate "her." Such a jarring lack of agreement causes the reader or listener to fix the logical inconsistency. If we hear a singular noun, we expect it to be replaced by a singular pronoun. If it isn’t, our minds unhappily fix the problem.

There are ways to avoid this problem, the simplest being to make the noun plurals where possible, permitting the pleasing usage of the non-gender-specific plural pronoun: “Good lawyers should know what they are doing.”

But what if the noun cannot be made plural. And here is where social media are moving in the opposite direction. On Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, we find the ubiquitous observation, “George has added to their story.” George is now a multiple individual, which is not the case, unless poor George suffers from multiple personalities, and then we would have to wonder which of his personalities had something to say.

Because names typically do carry gender, it would seem simple to program these announcements to identify gender and act accordingly. But that solution will not work when a name does not clearly present gender, as in Izzy, which can be short for Isabella, as it is for my granddaughter, but also Isaac. Social media would not want to make a mistake and insult users by associating them with the incorrect gender.

What’s the answer? I don’t profess to know. But what I do know is that these statements on social media reinforce what is already a failure of our language to permit us to be clear and precise.

And the poor language now faces the additional and perhaps more daunting problem of dealing with the issue of how to indicate a person’s gender identity when the physical self and the inner self seem to be at odds with each other.

Once that is resolved, and we decide whether a person is a “he” or a “she,” we’ll unfortunately be back where we started.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include two mysteries set in northern Michigan.