In more recent years, communities have discussed the implications of integrating gender-neutral pronouns into their languages for multiple reasons, including providing comfort to those who identify outside of the gender binary. On college campuses, these changes to language have become more apparent, but some professors are still resistant to the change, using language in the classroom to oppress students.
Professors on campus, especially those who teach English, often have discussions with their students about the use of gender-neutral pronouns as the issue comes up when students begin writing and editing for their class assignments. While many professors have a constructive discussion with students or accept the use of gender-neutral pronouns, others take issue with it and even share their personal opinions on the matter with students.
These professors try to disguise their harsh attitudes through rigid grammar rules. What might start as a few points missed on an assignment for the “incorrect usage” of a pronoun might later turn into a heated classroom debate in which many students may not feel comfortable or safe.
The argument against using gender-neutral pronouns is extremely outdated. One issue that professors tend to point out is that the pronoun “they” is plural and cannot be used in lieu of “he” or “she,” but the singular use of “they” in English has been traced back all the way to 1375, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Even before arguments against the singular “they” began in the 18th century, communities fought against the singular use of “you,” which is now simply regarded as correct in the rules of English grammar, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
“Singular ‘they’ has been used for a long time and is used in most casual situations; you probably do it yourself without realizing it,” Purdue OWL‘s website says. “We are simply witnessing a reorientation of the rule, mostly with the intention of including more people in language.”
Several organizations have even officially recognized the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in recent years, including the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style. Despite the recognition, professors still fight with students over pronouns.
While it is impossible to see into the minds of these professors, it seems clear that there is more behind the argument than just a simple grammar rule. Professors are entitled to their personal beliefs and opinions, but it is unethical to push those beliefs onto students under the thin veil of a grammar mistake.
An important step in making everyone in a community feel included, comfortable and safe is to create a more inclusive language. Researchers Sik Hung Ng and Fei Deng explained in an article that one of the powers of language is to “maintain existing dominance in legal, sexist, racist and ageist discourses that favor particular groups of language users over others.”
“I don’t have an opinion about the pronouns,” a KSU student who asked to remain anonymous said. “Just that if people want to use them, then we as a university should use them to respect and be kind to everyone.”
In order to create social change in societies, people must make changes in their language that support minority groups, including those that identify as non-binary or transgender. This is especially important on college campuses where social change usually gains prominence.
At this point, professors do not have a valid excuse to argue against gender-neutral pronouns in either spoken or written English, and students should not take these arguments at face-value as an issue of improper grammar. These prejudices disguised as fact result in a damaging and uncomfortable environment for non-binary students. Those who have a voice in the classroom, including other students and faculty, should use that voice to fight for their campus to be a safe and inclusive space for all students.