If you’re anything like me (god forbid), and you read a sentence like, “Dylan said they’d like a large latte,” you might find yourself going back over the previous paragraph to figure out who was Dylan was going to share the drink with. Turns out, no one. Dylan, whatever his/her/their birth sex or chosen gender*, prefers the pronoun “their.” Put down my double-take to the singular fact of my age: I was raised in the era when a woman was addressed as Madam Chairman, when flight attendants were mostly stewardesses, when my mum was often referred to as Mrs. Aubrey Evans (despite her name being Lyn), when “gay” meant “happy,” and the honorific “Ms.” was barely a gleam in Gloria Steinem’s eye.

(* Other than about 1 in 6,000 humans — about the odds of a tossed quarter landing on its edge — we’re all born male or female. As Simone de Beauvoir put it in The Second Sex, the sexes “are basically defined by the gametes they produce.” Big gametes = female (eggs); small gametes = male (sperm).; these are, in our species, eggs and sperm, respectively. That’s sex, not chosen, and almost always binary. And quite separate from one’s preferred gender.)

Take these three sentences that use “their”:

  • Jane likes their coffee without milk. (The speaker is being sensitive to the fact that Jane prefers “they/their” to “she/her.” Or anything else.)
  • My friend had a teacher who hated it when their students arrived late. (I never bothered to find out the teacher’s gender.)
  • Everyone has their little foibles. (Despite what my MS Word spellcheck says, it’s OK to mix singular and plural like this, see title of this piece. Has been for years. For instance, “Any student handing in their homework late will be penalized,” has been used throughout my lifetime. Actually, add another 500 or so years! The OED notes that a poem written in 1375 has, in modern English, “Each man hurried … till they drew near … where William and his darling were lying together.”)

This is an ancient version of Word. Anyone know if newer versions are more forgiving?

Back to the gender issue, which has a very wobbly history. Take the Declaration of Independence, with its hypocritical (unless you were a white over-21 male landowner): “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…”

So what’s left for an old white fogy like me, albeit one who has the good fortune to be married to a feminist who, 50 years ago, set me right about Ms. and much else? I still hear myself saying, “Thanks guys!” to the multi-gendered baristas as I leave OTCC; I cringe inwardly at a sentence like, “Alex answered their phone”; and I probably mansplain without realizing it. I’ll keep trying, though.

But I doubt if you’ll ever find me saying, or writing, such neologisms as xe/xem, ze/zim, or sie/hir. I’ll leave that to the kids.