The Times view on a new BBC policy: Pronoun Problems 10.07.20

The original article is here.

John Stuart Mill pondered the conundrum. Samuel Taylor Coleridge recommended using “it”. English grammar has a large lacuna. It lacks a pronoun that can apply equally to men and women. The traditional use of “he” (as in John Bunyan’s lyric “he who would valiant be”) as a generic pronoun has dwindled because it is ineradicably biased towards men. Transgender issues have given new impetus to worries about pronouns.

The BBC is hence encouraging staff to state their pronouns in their email signatures, to make transgender and non-binary colleagues feel welcome. The policy is well-intentioned but mistaken.

The commonest choice of pronoun among people who wish to be referred to as neither “he” nor “she” is “they”. The singer Sam Smith recently asked to be addressed this way. Using “they” as a singular pronoun (“everyone returned to their seats”) is fully grammatical and has been used by many great writers, such as Jane Austen.

But there is a constraint. English speakers do not use singular “they” where the antecedent is a proper name (as in “Chris left their coat”). Smith and others can reasonably ask to be addressed the way they prefer but some listeners will struggle to comply, especially when Smith is not present.

The syntactician Geoffrey Pullum notes: “Languages involve grammatical habits more deeply embedded than almost any other kinds of habit. And very few revolutionary proposals for altering the grammar of a human language catch on and are taken up.” Employers must stamp out discrimination but a policy on language is unlikely to work where it ignores ingrained habits, and an approach that is futile will ultimately prove invasive.

To discourage corporate policies on pronoun-declaration is in no respect transphobic or prejudiced. It is merely to acknowledge the limits of language and the importance of privacy.