In today’s gender-sensitive world, I know I am not the only one trying to wrap my head around the new realities of language usage. There are a plethora of words being tossed about as gender-neutral pronouns, but which ones shall I use – if any – in my writing?
The New York Times recently published a story noting that the American Dialect Society, an organization of etymologists, grammarians, lexicographers and linguists, recently named they – in singular pronoun form – as the word of 2015. The society suggests that they is appropriate for situations where someone’s gender is unknown or fluid, as well as for the gender binary individual, a person who doesn’t view gender as only male or female with no gradations (e.g., Mary said that they isn’t ready to take the exam.).
I understand the need for alternatives, but I’m not yet comfortable with the choices available. Using they as a singular pronoun still jangles my ear, although I now see it regularly on Facebook when Suzie or Charlie has updated their profile.
I am also unprepared to commit to other alternatives, such as ze or ey, as suggested by the office of campus life at The American University in Washington, D.C. Staff at AU have embraced the new reality and taken the step of providing guidance to the university community on pronoun options and usage, but many other institutions lag behind.
Until I see wider uptake and more agreement — Oxford Canadian Dictionary and Canadian Press, I’m talking to you — I’ll undoubtedly follow the existing Canadian Press guidance, which suggests avoiding gender-based pronouns and using the singular they only as a last resort.
The gender revolution is underway. As writer Adrienne LaFrance notes in a recent Atlantic article, … “culture doesn’t just trump language rules, it creates them.” Will your own language usage lead or follow? Do let me know!
I’ve talked previously about homonyms – words that sound alike, but have different meanings, such as peer and pier – and the importance of knowing the difference between them. Yet, these errors crop up, time and again, as well-meaning people get confused or don’t realize the limits of their vocabularies.
For a writer/editor, it’s jarring to encounter the misuse of a homonym while reading along in an otherwise well-written story or document. It stops me short and breaks the flow of the narrative; it also frustrates me that someone didn’t catch the mistake before the piece was printed/posted. It shows carelessness or ignorance and reflects poorly on the source.
I come across such words regularly, as much as I wish I didn’t. This week, while reading through a brand profile provided by a client, I discovered that James enjoys discovering new flavours that “peak” his taste buds. Oy! Peak is generally used as a noun, not a verb, e.g., climbing to the peak of Mount Baker. The writer actually meant pique, or arouse (curiosity, interest, etc.).
The next day, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across an artistically designed, inspirational post from an acquaintance. The sentiment was lovely, but I couldn’t enjoy it fully, because it talked about finding someone to love who “compliments” you. (Hmmm, taken literally, isn’t that a given? Why would you want a lover who insulted you or ignored you?) Complements, or completes, is the word the author was undoubtedly seeking, and all the work that went into creating the lovely lettering and layout was spoiled by the use of the wrong word.
To what shall I attribute these missteps? A poor educational system? Sloppiness? I know that language is fluid and ever-changing, but mistaken usage isn’t part of that evolution. Let’s get it right!
When was the last time you wrote a letter? If you’re like many of us, it’s so long ago that you don’t remember. Today, we have email, e-cards and texting. Why bother with snail mail when you can get in touch with someone in real time?
Recently, my hometown paper carried a story about a woman who is trying to revive this lost art, maintaining that letters are a way to tell someone else that you want to get to know them. It’s a lovely sentiment and one that rang true for many centuries. How else would we get to know many of the talented leaders and creators from times past if it weren’t for their letters to others?
Priya Parmar, author of Vanessa and Her Sister, a novel about painter Vanessa Bell and writer Virginia Woolf, told an interviewer that her understanding of the two women arose, in large part, from their letters. Many biographers turn to extensive correspondence for clues to the subject’s character.
I wonder if in today’s fast-paced world, where we are caught up in so many obligations, whether we have the time or inclination to truly get to know others. Perhaps Facebook, Twitter and other social media are the substitutes – a chance to share some of our thoughts and feelings, hoping to be heard. However, “Likes” don’t necessarily equal understanding and insight and they are no guarantee of real two-way communication.
The winter holidays are a time of year when we think of those we love and those in our larger circle. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to reach out to one or more of them in an unconventional way – the letter – and start a real conversation. All it costs is our time and a stamp.