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  • There are no pronouns in the Nineteenth Amendment

    The Nineteenth Amendment reads, 

    The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

    It was ratified 100 years ago, on Aug. 18, 1920 – in time for more than eight million women to vote in the presidential election that year. 

    There are no pronouns in the Nineteenth Amendment. There are two reasons for this:

    1. The amendment, originally proposed in 1878, mirrors the language of the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which extended voting rights to African Americans, and which has no pronouns.
    2. Pronouns are ambiguous, especially gender pronouns, especially in the law.
  • Pronouns on TV: pop culture meets inclusive language

    You know that gender pronouns like hie and zie are a thing when they start showing up in TV dramas. If you haven’t noticed them, never fear, for I, your professor of pronouns, will now enlighten you.

    Let’s start with hen. It’s Swedish, not English, but be patient, because there’s an English tie-in at the end. 

  • Heer, hiser, himer: Pronouns in the news, 1912 edition

    On January 7, 1912, a headline in the Chicago Tribune breathlessly announced, “Mrs. Ella Young Invents Pronoun . . . Makes Principals Gasp.” Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, told the Tribune she thought up what she called the “duo-personal” pronouns he’er, his’er, and him’er as she walked to a meeting with school principals. The story went viral. Then it unraveled.

  • The oldest genderless pronouns are lo and zo, for French, and e, es, em, for English

    In 1765, Joachim Faiguet de Villeneuve invented two genderless third-person pronouns, lo (singular) and zo (plural), for an artificial language that he called Langue nouvelle, or ‘new language.’ English didn’t catch up until 1841, when Francis Augustus Brewster coined e, es, and em.

  • A grammar lesson for Justice Alito

    By a vote of 6-3 in Bostock v. Clayton County, on June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.”

    But in a section in his dissent in the case headed “Freedom of Speech,” Justice Samuel Alito warns that the Bostock decision not only opens up bathrooms and locker rooms to sexual predators, it runs afoul of the First Amendment by forcing people to use gender pronouns against their will.  

    Justice Alito is wrong about pronouns, and so here’s a little grammar lesson for him. 

  • Verbing pronouns

    Nonbinary singular they has become so normal that people now want to know the rules for how to use it. Which is right, they is or they are? Is the reflexive themself or themselves? Even if your answer is, “Wait, what rules? There are no rules,” the fact that anybody’s asking is all the proof we need that English pronouns are continuing to change. Here’s the latest change: as we see in this tweet from the British writer and gender activist, Shon Faye, nonbinary singular they has become a verb:

    A trans man described his period of identifying as nonbinary to me the other day as “I was they/themming at the time.”

  • It’s National Grammar Day. I can’t even, and you shouldn’t either.

    National Grammar Day is March 4 because it’s the only day of the year that’s a complete sentence. It’s a command, March forth, right? Verb plus adverb, if you’re being pedantic. 

    Except that National Grammar Day is the Day of Purism, not to be confused with Purim, which is actually a week later. And purists believe—forgive me for stereotyping—that a noun can’t become a verb. March, the month, is a noun. March, the command, is a verb. So if a purist is to be consistent, their belovèd National Grammar Day is based on a lie. 

  • From they to tey to te: pronoun mansplaining in the 1970s

    In 1971, Casey Miller and Kate Swift coined the gender-neutral pronouns tey, ter, and tem. Writing in the preview issue of Ms. Magazine, Miller and Swift called their creation “the human pronoun” which would help women to be recognized “as full-fledged members of the human race.” Three years later, Warren Farrell came up with te, tes, and tir, barely acknowledging Miller and Swift's coinage, but explaining in great detail why his "human pronouns" were superior. 

  • Gender conceal: Did you know that pronouns can also hide someone's gender?

    Gender reveals have been exploding in the news recently, but there are also a growing number of gender conceals—using a pronoun to hide someone’s gender. Historically, two English pronouns have been used to mask a person’s gender: it and they. But so far the definitions of it and they don’t include the gender conceal.

    First let’s look at they. The Oxford English Dictionary lists three senses for singular they: 

    • referring collectively to members of a group (everyone, everybody)
    • referring to an individual generically or indefinitely (someone, a person, the student)
    • referring to someone who is nonbinary or gender-nonconforming (Sam Smith’s pronouns are they and them).

    I think it’s time to add a fourth sense:

    • referring to someone whose gender needs to be concealed (the whistleblower…they).
  • Teachers' pronouns

    I’m a teacher; my pronoun is _______.

    If you answered, My pronoun is they, you’ve done nothing wrong. Yes, teachers are expected to model good grammar as well as teach it—sometimes the job depends on it—but no matter what you’ve been told before, singular they is grammatically correct, and the American Psychological Society’s influential Publication Manual (7e) is the latest authority to agree. The APA manual stresses correct grammar in writing, and it approves the use of they, them, their, themselves, and even themself, when an individual’s pronouns are unknown or irrelevant.

    Teachers have a reputation for stressing grammatical correctness, but the last time the National Education Association had a style manual, back in 1974, it didn’t even consider singular they as an option. At the time, Mildred Fenner, editor of Today’s Education, reported that for many years the NEA journal used generic she for teachers because most teachers were women. But in the 1960s men began to complain that expressions like the teacher . . . she were responsible for teachers’ poor public image and their low salaries. One man objected at an NEA meeting that generic she was both bad English and a bad look for the profession. . . .

  • Pronouns and the law

    A Virginia teacher was fired for refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns. Now the teacher, Peter Vlaming, is suing his former school for violating his First Amendment rights. Does he have a case?

  • The Song of Singular they

    When the singer Sam Smith announced on Instagram that their pronouns were they, them—which got more than half a million likes in less than a day—the Oscar and Grammy winner acknowledged “there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try.”

    Smith was correct that there would be some misgendering. In reporting the story, CNN, the BBC, and the Guardian all referred to Smith as “they,” but over the course of a 5-sentence story the Associated Press called Smith “he” and “his” seven times.

     

  • Can a Swedish pronoun cure sexism?

    Can a coined gender-neutral pronoun reduce sexism? A recent study by Margit Tavits and Efrén O. Pérez published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is optimistic that it can. According to Tavits and Pérez, now that the new, ungendered Swedish pronoun hen is official, Swedes will be more open to women in public life and more likely to support the rights of LGBT people. Only hen is not really official in any meaningful sense, and Sweden was already socially progressive decades before hen gained prominence.

  • Commas don't kill people

    According to one legend, the Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement, convicted of treason for supporting the Irish rebellion, was “hanged on a comma.” But that's wrong, the comma didn't kill him.

  • What do you call a retired professor?

    Emeritus? Emerita? Emeriti? Emeritae? Emeritx? Emerit? Maybe we need a gender-neutral word for retired academics?