The use of the singular “they” is a fraught subject amongst grammarians.
It has been accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary’s online edition, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and the Associated Press Stylebook. A longtime copy editor at The New Yorker, Mary Norris, who held out at first, now says she has come to realise that grammar is most correct when it’s most respectful.
Now, universities are telling students that they should use “gender-neutral” language in their essays, or risk being marked down.
Undergraduates in a course on religious activism at the UK’s Hull University’s school of social science were told “failure to use gender-sensitive language will impact your mark.” The documents, obtained by The Sunday Times (paywall), said: “Language is important and highly symbolic. In your essay, I thus expect you to be aware of the powerful and symbolic nature of language and use gender-sensitive formulations.”
Hull is not alone in penalizing students for not conforming to this new norm. In the US, Yale is considering eschewing the traditional term “freshman” with the gender-neutral “first-year.” A Northern Arizona University student lost a marks on an English essay for using the word “mankind” instead of “humanity.” Anne Scott, an English literature professor at the university, said in an email to the student:
I will respect your choice to leave your diction choices ‘as is’ and to make whatever political and linguistic statement you want to make by doing so. By the same token, I will still need to subtract a point because your choice will not be made in the letter or spirit of this particular class, which is all about having you and other students looking beneath your assumptions and understanding that ‘mankind’ does not mean ‘all people’ to all people. It positively does not.
And the desire to be gender sensitive in the use of language, is leading to universities altogether banning certain words. Sarah Lawrence’s Gender Neutral Language Guidelines aimed at publications such as the student handbook ask that administrators avoid gendered words such as “brotherhood” and suggests more gender-sensitive replacements such as “kinship” or “solidarity.”
In an updated code of practice, the UK’s Cardiff Metropolitan University listed words and phrases that students should avoid—such as forefathers, mankind, sportsmanship, right-hand man, and gentleman’s agreement.