StoryStudio Chicago Words for WorkStoryStudio Chicago Words for Work

by Jill Pollack

Does Form follow Function? Or is it the other way around?

The English language seems to want it both ways. We are taught immovable grammar rules, only to be told they are all breakable…to a point.

For instance, I was taught that using “he” or “him” was an appropriate option to refer to both sexes kind of way included women. Poppycock! I remember arguing with my father over this very issue. His reasoning was that of course, “man” referred to all people. Everyone knew that. But when I suggested we switch that out and use “woman” to refer to all people, he said, “that’s ridiculous.”

My father was not alone in wanting to adhere to tradition. But language matters. Words matter.

I have always bristled at the notion that the male version of words really means all of us. When I see the words “him” or “he,” I think of a male. When I see the words, “her” or “she,” I think of a female. (Yes, society is quickly realizing that these descriptors are now too limiting when it comes to gender.)

In recent decades we’ve tried to correct this problem by using the clunky “he or she,” or my favorite, “s/he.” But now the American Dialect Society has solved the problem and absolved us all of our natural tendency to “they.” “They” has been blessed as a proper gender-neutral singular pronoun.

Everyone grabbed his or her notebooks and began writing.

becomes Everyone grabbed their notebooks and began writing.

Which version would you use in conversation? Which version would your hands type without your brain thinking about it too much?

When I first heard of this decree I was understandably upset. I value my grammar snobbiness, even as I look for original ways to break the rules and then justify my actions. And when rule-breaking doesn’t solve my sentence problem, then I just rewrite the sentence.

Geoff Nunberg, author of The Way We Talk Now, shared his explanation for the new rule—and how it affects us as a society— in a tone that seemed more weary assignation to our ever-changing language than a “Bravo/Brava” for this particular announcement. In his essay for NPR, he recounts that esteemed writers such as Jane Austen used “they” as a singular pronoun. It’s the Victorians we have to blame for demanding more rigidity and rules in language, which is how “he” became law of the land. Thank you, Victorians.

I welcome the officially sanctioned changes to our language. And I love the democratization of words, the “from the people” sort of way that language changes from everyday usage. But there is another part of me that thinks many of these new words or rules come from a place of laziness. Why craft an original thought when a cliche will do? That argument will be for another day. For now, I’m still focused on the American Dialect Society and their useful list of new words. Whoever wrote this, they really did a good job.

P.S. Want to hear more about they and their? Watch Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s Comma Queen, teach you how to rewrite the sentence.

Jill Pollack
About Jill Pollack
 Jill Pollack is Chief Story Wrangler of StoryStudio Chicago, where she founded a creative writing school and the Words for Work business writing training. She now co-leads the Story Mode program with Beth Nyland, working with company teams and business people who are really artists in their hearts to become great storytellers, presenters, and creatives. She was a co-founder of the content marketing conference, Content Jam in Chicago, IL, and is a frequent podcast guest and speaker on the power of stories in our personal and professional lives.
I’ve Been Saying That For Years