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The problem with calling Sam Smith ‘they’

17 September 2019

11:54 AM

17 September 2019

11:54 AM

Singer Sam Smith has announced that from now on his pronouns are ‘they/them’, sparking an overdue conversation about the social justice movement’s ongoing efforts to influence the way we speak. Of course Smith is free to make his request – just as we are free to decide whether or not to accede – but with such attempts to skip over the natural process of language evolution, where does that leave the teachers whose job it is to uphold basic grammatical standards?

The expectation that ‘they’ and ‘them’ should be adopted as singular pronouns in formal speech and writing presents its own set of challenges. We are all aware of the common colloquial usage of ‘they’ as singular in the case of one whose gender is unknown. For instance, to say ‘Someone has left their phone’ is far more natural to us than ‘Someone has left his or her phone’, which would seem unwieldy even in the written form. Those who claim never to use ‘they’ in the singular have not paid close attention to their own speech patterns.

That said, in the vast majority of cases for the vast majority of people ‘they’ operates as a plural. The sentence ‘They are furious with you’ tells me to expect complaints from multiple individuals. Without further clarification, this sentence does not let me know that I have upset a specific person who identifies as gender-neutral. Given my recent Twitter mentions after a joke I made about Sam Smith’s announcement, clarity on this particular issue would be extremely helpful.

Grammatical and syntactical standards are not only the essence of language, but also act as a guarantee against elitism. The division of Latin into the Classical and Vulgar in Ancient Rome ensured that the plebeians were kept out of the realms of politics, philosophy and literature.

Similarly, the obfuscating jargon of modern day social sciences provides an effective barrier against criticism; a useful tool when one has an academic career to maintain but little of substance to say. There’s a very good reason why predominately middle-class social justice activists have invented their own lexicon; the use of phrases such as ‘cishet’, ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘lived experience’ signals membership and discourages engagement from those outside the bubble. The universality of language has always been a threat to the elites; if we’re all playing by the same rulebook it’s difficult to game the system.

This is why it’s important that all schoolchildren are educated to the same linguistic standards. It supports equality of opportunity and means that as adults they will be able to participate effectively in the public conversation. The transformation of ‘they’ from the plural to the singular will not pose a problem so long as it comes about by evolution rather than imposition. At present, it is the ‘woke’ elite who insist on this usage, but there is little evidence to suggest that it is anything other than baffling to the general public at large.

This issue will doubtless become a major headache for educators in the near future. One of the most common reasons why pupils fail their English exams is their tendency to write as they speak, for failing to distinguish between the formal and the colloquial. The singular ‘they’ falls into this latter category, and can often make one’s meaning unclear. At present there is no specific regulation from exam boards on the matter of gender-neutral pronouns, but most teachers seem to take the view that they are not compatible with standard English. This isn’t the news that activists will be keen to hear, especially those who routinely cite Shakespeare’s use of the singular ‘they’ as a defence of current fashions. I can’t be the only person who considers it odd to hear activists claim that the best way to ensure progress is to emulate a writer from the sixteenth century.

One English teacher tells me that if presented with a singular ‘they’ in an essay he would be obliged to correct it. Moreover, he says, the now common practice of ‘peer marking’ means that pupils have the opportunity to correct each other’s work, and that they would be the first to find fault when it comes to poor grammar.  ‘Teachers are more prone to fashionable nonsense than pupils,’ he tells me. ‘Trust the kids. They know bullshit when they see it.’

But what if national curriculum policy were to change? ‘I would continue to mark according to the rules of grammar,’ he tells me. Given the clout that woke activists now have in schools, I suspect he may eventually find this small act of resistance to be more trouble than it’s worth.

For all Sam Smith’s appeals to the need to respect diversity, his is an essentially political act. It is based on the rehabilitation of a deeply conservative view of gender, which perceives men with traditionally feminine mannerisms or tastes to be outside the parameters of maleness. The notion of gender as performative, based on outdated social-constructionist theories from the 1970s, is now becoming mainstream thanks to the rise of intersectionality. That it has infected our education system is clear enough from the introduction of gender-neutral uniforms in numerous schools across the UK. This is illiberal identity politics masquerading as tolerance.

It is perfectly possible that our language will adapt so that ‘they’ is commonly understood as both singular and plural, but it will not come quickly and will be impossible to enforce. The evolution of language is inevitable and impossible to predict; the imposition of language is authoritarian and should be resisted on principle. On the issue of gender-neutral pronouns in English classes, the consensus among teachers seems to be ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’. Perhaps this will suffice for now, but the farsighted among us can spy a turbulent river on the horizon and, as yet, no obvious sign of a bridge.


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