Written by: Ally Carbutti
“You can’t say ‘they’ in your paper. It isn’t proper English. People speak incorrectly—you must say ‘he/she said.’” My eighth grade English teacher is narrowing her beady eyes at me, pursing her lips. “Ok?” she asks as if I’m unable to comprehend the knowledge she’s so graciously gifted me.
I am now almost done with college, and reflect on this moment often. The grammatical uses of “they” intrigue me still. There’s been so much social growth between the time that comment was made and now. I was shocked when the instructor of my first ever college course went around on Zoom and asked us what our preferred pronouns were. I feel guilty that it surprised me so much, but nobody in my K-12 experience ever raised the question…nobody cared to ask.
What has surprised me further about college is the encouragement of voice within my English courses. I will mention now that I am an English major, very focused on creative writing. This applies mostly to my creative writing classes, but we are allowed to say whatever we want, however we want. We can use whatever pronouns we please. I think this is how writing should be. Why should language exclude people who strive to be included? To be seen? Language should serve as a tool to aid what is being said, rather than define or limit what/how things are being told.
I haven’t had the opportunity to ask any specific professor what the grammatically proper use of pronouns is in academic writing. I did have one course that included a novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, written by an author, Akwaeke Emezi, who uses “they/them” pronouns, and it was about the journey of a character who similarly uses nonbinary pronouns. It was a labeled writing course, so we had to write an essay on this material. I used the proper pronouns to address the author and main character, but this is the first time I was academically permitted to do so. I felt like my eighth grade instructor was going to come slap my desk with a ruler and tell me to change it.
This recent experience has left me questioning what I am supposed to do as a student while using my academic voice. I assume that professors can’t deny the use of “they/them” pronouns when they are used within a book, or by an author. I think it gets tricky when there is no knowledge of what the author’s preferred pronouns are. I think the socially correct thing to do nowadays is to use “they” when there is any confusion. I am at a loss for what to do when someone identifies as “he/they,” or “she/they.” Does academic language require me to choose “he” or “she” in order to be “grammatically correct?”…whatever that means.
Language itself is just a social construct. We can change it if we please. I am for the change, I’m just not sure everyone else is. Perhaps we all have to look inside ourselves individually and decide if the use of a pronoun is going to matter. Most of the time, for gender-unspecific topics, pronouns don’t matter at all. Oftentimes a “this person said” can replace a “he said” or a “she said.” Or a name can replace a “he” or a “she.” Names are only gendered in our minds. At the end of the day it is just a word attached to the idea of a person. A person who is human, with feelings.