The Pronoun Problem, and Why Anyone Should Care
When we’re young, most of us learn to cover our mouths before we cough, wash our hands before eating dinner, and always refer to ourselves and another person as “that person and I.”
I haven’t done the research, but I’d guess that “and I” is one of the most overcorrected constructions in all of English.
Grandma gave ten dollars each to my brother, my sister, and I.
Mr. Smith asked Johnny and I to lead the presentation1.
Are we so afraid of me? An even more perplexing problem is the rampant insertion of myself, perhaps under the mistaken belief that the word is somehow a longer, more formal version of me for use in adult conversation. I hear this one everywhere. Recently, a friend informed me, “Anna and myself are meeting with Kathy on Tuesday.” A coworker instructed a group of us, saying, “Email any questions to Robbie or myself2.”
To clear things up once and for all, here’s the trick: Remove the other person’s name, and see what makes sense. If I meet with Kathy, then Anna and I should meet with Kathy. People can email me, so they can also email Robbie or me. Myself is only ever used as a reflexive object (I see myself in the mirror) or for emphasis (I can do it myself).
What inspired this post, however, is less the modern assault on good grammar and more the question of why anyone should care. With first person pronouns (I, me, myself), we can learn the rules and move on. Death to awkward sentence constructions! Third person pronouns, on the other hand, are a whole lot trickier.
Gender-neutral language is a hot topic in the world right now, and, for English speakers, much of the debate centers on pronouns. Traditionally, he and she were singular while they was plural. Some instances of “singular they” have existed for well over a century: Emily Dickinson used they to agree with anyone back in the 1880s, despite anyone being a singular word (source: Merriam Webster). Most of the time, writers can avoid the potential confusion of these sentences by simply using a plural subject:
Anyone who has their ticket printed can form a line here.
People who have their tickets printed can form a line here.
Related to singular they is a form called nonbinary they, which refers to a person’s intentional use of “they” as a preferred pronoun.
Alex brought his/her book to class.
Alex brought their book to class.
In the first sentence, speakers must decide if Alex is a he or a she, but not so in the second sentence. Numerous alternatives to the singular they (such as ze) have appeared over the years, although none have garnered much traction outside of university settings.
Intriguingly, they might have some historical precedent to survive where other pronouns fail. Seven hundred years ago, thou was a singular second-person pronoun and ye was the plural form. Gradually, the more plural-looking you took over, and it’s since survived as the sole second-person pronoun for any number (y’all notwithstanding).
So should grammarians take a hard line on he/she vs. they? Time will tell, but history suggests a pronoun takeover is possible in the cultural mainstream. Regardless of how society changes language, our grammar can still stand up:
They have knowledge.
The future belongs to them.
They see themselves speaking correctly no matter how society changes.
1. Me is correct here, in case that wasn’t obvious.
2. Names changed to protect the innocent people unknowingly involved in these syntactic horrors.
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