Ze Only Confuses Hir Students: Teaching Gender Neutral Pronouns

Ashley Thorne

I’ve come to like the linguistics and writing blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lingua Franca. Its contributors are English and Linguistics professors and professional writers, and the blog is a forum for their musings on word use, grammar, language—a good destination for word nerds like me. Today on Lingua Franca, writer Lucy Ferriss has a post on gender neutral pronouns. Her reflections come right after Sweden added a gender neutral word for “he” and “she” to its National Encyclopedia. 

Ferriss writes that her “partner” marks his students’ papers when they “fall back unnecessarily” on default pronouns such as “he,” “his,” and “man.” He “asks his students to employ gender-neutral language except where indicating gender is appropriate.” Ferriss points out that some students turn in work in which they use the new gender neutral pronouns, “ze” instead of he or she, and “hir” instead of his or her. Although Ferriss’s partner finds this usage distracting and bizarre, he does not ban it because it would be hypocritical of him after encouraging gender-neutral language, and because these words are becoming more accepted. 

Knowing the attitudes in academia today, I wasn’t surprised to read that a professor marks his student’s papers when they use “he,” but I wonder whether some faculty members actually dock grades for that. Again, in fields such as Gender Studies, I wouldn’t be surprised. But much is lost if our society enforces this. No rewording could capture the richness of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

The point of Ferriss’s blog post is to say that people need rules. Instead of simply adding options for us to use, gender neutral pronouns tend to complicate and confuse. We should just pick one or the other, tradition or political correctness. But if a professor were to mandate that students use gender neutral terminology and grade them accordingly, Ferriss expects, “Students will emerge from those classes, I predict, not as converts but as survivors of a brief professorial dictatorship, determined never to engage in gender neutrality again.” 

To avoid uncertainty, we should come down on one side or the other. She suggests it may be easier to revert back to the classic “he” as the universal pronoun. Strangely enough—given that she just said a professor that mandated this would act, in essence, as a dictator—she also proposes that going with a gender neutral term would be easier than all this uncertainty. 

The problem is that if gender is socially constructed, as postmodernist academics say it is, then “he” and “she” no longer have clout. If gender is pliable, why not grammar? Ferriss is right in saying that it would be easier to choose one or the other, and it would be easiest to do as the grammar books have taught in the past – after all, simplicity is why we fell back on the universal “he” to begin with. But sometimes it is easier to capitulate to the demands of political correctness than to plant a foot on solid ground. At least you know you won’t offend anyone. 

As the old proverb goes, “Ze who knows not and knows not zie knows not: sie is a fool - shun zim. Ze who knows not and knows zie knows not: sie is simple - teach zir. Ze who knows and knows not zie knows: sie is asleep - wake zim. Ze who knows and knows zie knows: sie is wise - follow zir.” 


Image: Pexels

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