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Will You Be Teaching Singular "They"?

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In the past couple of weeks, the dorkiest subsegments of the twitterverse, the blogosphere, and various other social interwebs have erupted with news of singular they. In December the Washington Post made their own headlines by adding  singular they to their style guide. Then last week, the folks at the American Dialect Society went a step further, naming singular they their word of the year. The selection was reported by the Washington Post, The New York Times, TIME, NPR, Slate, The Economist, and of course the Kilgore News Herald

If you’re saying to yourself, Wait, I coulda sworn the word of the year was b2ap3_thumbnail_Screen-Shot-2016-02-05-at-8.18.38-AM.png , you're not totally crazy. It seems that a number of organizations have recognized that word of the year announcements have the potential to go viral, resulting in a profusion of words of the year. But it's the ADS WOTY that goes back furthest and carries the most clout, and their selection was singular they. 

The SNOOTs Protest!

Now it might not surprise you that certain subsubsegments or the dorkiest subsegments of the Internet are none too happy with this decision; singular they has peeved language SNOOTs for pretty much ever in sentences like, I don’t know who is responsible, but they will face the consequences.Prescriptively, if you needed a generic third person singular pronoun, he was your andro-normative go-to, as in When each guest arrives, he should sign in. Everyone’s favorite prescriptivists, Strunk and White, put it thusly: “The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language.” Other common options were he or she and s/he but these have a certain clunkiness that kept them from catching on. Those among us who wanted to put in a good faith effort would try to mix in a generic she from time to time.

If you only read the headlines and the comments on your social feed (or even if you read the entirety of the Kilgore News Herald’s article), you might walk away with the impression that the ADS announcement has simply validated and celebrated this usage which many believe to be lazy or at least nonstandard. But that’s why you should read beyond the headlines and comments and the Kilgore News Herald.

In fact, it is a distinct but related use of singular they that was selected by the ADS. The usage discussed above is for when you want to avoid he and she because you’re not referring to a specific person, and so you don’t want to use gendered language. But the ADS voters actually singled out “its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as ’non-binary’ in gender terms.” That is, some people prefer neither he nor she and they is a common alternative. This makes the selection quite a propos in what has been a banner year for the trans rights movement. 

Singular They in Your Syllabus

So, of course, I can’t tell you whether or where singular they will make its way into your classroom, but I do have some questions to pose to you: 

Where does singular they fit in an ESL scope and sequence? Should it be taught alongside other subject pronouns from the start? Or is it too confusing and distracting to beginning learners? If we teach singular they, does that necessarily mean that we teach other inclusive language? Singular them? The nonbinary honorific, Mx.? Themself? 

Does teaching context matter? Is inclusive more important in ESL than in EFL? How about ELF?

Teaching inclusive language is almost certain to engender (get it?) controversy or debate among some students. Do you have a plan in place to address these objections in a culturally sensitive manner? 

A teacher should make an effort to separate their personal beliefs and preferences, linguistic or otherwise, from their language syllabus, shouldn’t they? 

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Rob Sheppard | @robshpprd


In over 10 years of English language teaching Rob has held a variety of roles in many teaching contexts. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; intensive academic English programs in Boston; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep via Skype; and nonprofit adult English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He is the founder and CEO of Ginseng English, former director of adult education and interim executive director at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment. He is also a regular contributor to the TESOL Blog on the topic of adult education.

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Guest Sunday, 16 December 2018