An overview of Dr. Anne Curzan’s “A Linguistic Case for Gender Neutral ‘They'”

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Story by Elizabeth Schoof, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of Adrianna Triche

“A Linguistic Case for Gender Neutral ‘They’” was presented here at Aquinas on March 16. Brought to Aquinas by the Jane Hibbard Idema Women’s Studies Center, Dr. Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan held an open discussion on the importance of a gender neutral “they.” Dr. Curzan, a recipient of the Henry Russel Award for extraordinary accomplishment in research and creativity, brought a sense of humor as well as an in depth understanding of language to the discussion.

Dr. Curzan discussed many points of significance but focused primarily on the understanding that while the use of “they” is debatable from an academic standpoint, there is no question as to whether or not  “they” can function as a singular pronoun. It is a word that is used on a daily basis, and it is important to many members of society.

The discussion was one that tied closely to the ideas presented in Women’s and Gender Studies. According to the director of the Jane Hibbard Idema Women’s Studies Center, Dr. Amy Dunham Strand, the center felt that “bringing Curzan to Aquinas was, in part, a way of following up on events from last spring, when AQ Pride held a pronoun awareness event that generated significant campus conversation, including questions about the linguistic viability of the use of gender-neutral, singular “they.” The Women’s Studies Programming Board felt that a scholarly approach to this topic was in order, as debates about language and gender have been longtime concerns for women, just as for those who identify as LGBTQ.”

The center felt that Dr. Curzan held the credentials necessary to be considered a reliable source in the discussion of pronouns. Although there are many opinions to be shared, she provided a perspective that was based upon in-depth academic research. Dr. Dunham Strand felt that this was significant to fulfilling the Women’s Studies Center’s mission– “to serve as a community resource for women’s and gender issues” and “to raise awareness of those issues.”

Of all the things discussed, one of the most significant portions of discussion came from an issue that many people face — being politically correct.  Political correctness is something that many individuals struggle to understand and apply in their everyday lives. While many do not see the significance of using the preferred pronouns of an individual, Dr. Curzan described pronouns as being the equivalent to an individual’s name. She stated, “in the same way that we would call an individual by their preferred name or nickname, it is important that we call people by their preferred pronouns.” The concept of being politically correct is not to make life more complicated or to create controversy. Rather, it is to encourage respect for one another.   

The presentation went on to point out that people need to be willing to acknowledge the different ways in which members of society identify themselves and respect them for who they are. With that in mind, it is important that individuals take the time to be civil with one another, as well as fair and accurate.

“Language itself sets the tone of the debates we have. It is not neutral and it changes the ways in which we interact with one another,” Dr. Curzan said. In other words, communication is key to solving the issues in society. It is important that the discussion take on a mutually respectful tone.

The only way for society to grow and allow individuals to connect is for people to make an effort to accept one another. Although this is a very large task, Dr. Curzan pointed out that if everyone attempts to use language as a form of acceptance, a difference can be made. At the end of the day everyone deserves to feel welcomed and accepted in the world that they live in, and it is possible to make sure that happens here at Aquinas.

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