Pronouns and Father’s Day

June 19, 2017

Yesterday while perusing one newspaper’s mandatory Father’s Day opinion article I saw a variation of the following clause:  “When a dad sees their kids.”  I gagged.

How far have we fallen, on Father’s Day, this most gender-specific of all roles of all days, when it’s too much work for that writer to use the third person, masculine, singular pronoun for the unique relationship between a father and his child?

I admit that language forms and reflects thought, but does it have to inhibit it and sew confusion?  How many of the transgendered are there out there to offend, anyway?  Before you dismiss me as a troglodyte of the old school, I should specify that, while I gulp in discomfort before every proclamation of “My pronouns are they, them, and their” on the TV show Billions, I quite like that character, and I wish the character well on future seasons.

My complaint stems from a career of marking the essays of rather bright teenagers as they struggled to distinguish between one and many.  To a certain extent I blame day care and rock videos for the underlying assumption of interchangeability:  should one’s companions meet a minimum standard of age, gender, and appearance, each will do as well as another.  This fuzzy focus from an excess of choices embodies itself in many students’ written work through the misuse of “their.”

Indeed, my frequent exhortation to the brightest writers was to exercise great care in distinguishing between one and many.  The use of a singular subject is a good way to initiate a sentence which informs as well as it can.  Let’s use the Father’s Day example again:  “My dad used to encourage me to use his basic woodworking tools to build things from boards I found in the scrap pile.”  Of course it’s acceptable to use a plural subject:  “Parents often support their children by sharing their personal toys with them as they grow up.”

Plural subjects such as “parents” don’t need a gender-specific pronoun.  Nonetheless, it is hard to feel confidence in a writer too lazy not to begin a sentence with a singular subject and then lose his way to “their” after the first verb.

It’s as though a writer’s understanding of basic grammar runs up against unbreakable rules of political correctness and his brain shorts out to “Whatever!” mode and his fingers type in “they.”

Is it any wonder that journalists today seem overwhelmed by specific details of complex stories?  They have lost their editors’ permission to use the necessary language to examine them.

Look at the rise of Eric Grenier, a blogger-turned-columnist at CBC.  Grenier has established a reputation as an analyst of polling data.  It was this blogger who had the temerity to write that Baby Boomers were the principal supporters of Justin Trudeau’s 2015 electoral majority, not Millenials, that marijuana legalization attracted these Millenials to the party but they voted on jobs and the environment, and that the much-touted Aboriginal vote actually went to the NDP, despite loud protestations of betrayal from First Nations leaders in British Columbia who claimed to have voted Liberal in the federal election.  He formed these conclusions from careful, poll-by-poll analyses of turnout and vote counts.

Grenier’s particular gift is his ability to distinguish between the one and the many, and it quietly puts the lie to some of the half-truths which slide conveniently into Canadian political writing.  On one occasion I corrected journalist Stephen Maher on one of these slips.  He quickly apologized that he had been in a hurry,  he should have checked his data, but hadn’t, and promptly rewrote the article to eliminate the slip.

As Canadians in a world increasingly afflicted with diseases of thought, we need to pay careful attention to the accuracy of what we write and read.

UPDATE:  20 June, 2017

As satisfying as the first half of the rant above might have been to compose, a reader suggested a more appropriate perspective on Arcamax.com:

It’s called ‘singular they’.  Intended for cases where the sex of any particular member of a group is irrelevant to the meaning of the message– it’s vaguely stupid when talking about members of a group whose sex can be assumed, like fathers.

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