The prescriptive rule that most interests me is that of pronouns, specifically in relation to gender. Consequently, I chose to investigate the usage of “he, she, and they”. We learned in class that the world is shifting from using “he” regardless of the gender, in such sentences as, “A doctor knows his biology.” and “A person should always use his manners.” to using the more gender neutral “they”. However, I was surprised at the results of my survey. Educational level and generation played huge roles in which pronoun the interviewee used.
Naturally the first person I interviewed was the one in closest proximity. My 20-year-old roommate was sitting across the table, so I simply asked her to fill the blanks in the following sentences with what she would say naturally:
A good student always turns ___ homework in on time.
One should always wash ___ hands before eating.
Apparently someone called for you; ___ asked you to call ___ back (Hubfolio).
I could sense her stumble at first, but then she eased back and said, “their, their, she, her”. Interesting, I thought. She used the general “they” for the first two but then uttered a gender specific pronoun for the last sentence, and a female pronoun at that. I called another girl friend our age and she responded exactly the same. Then, I tried two guys in their early 20’s. Both answered, “their, their, they, them”. All of these interviewees were current college students. Intrigued by the results, I thought I should try a different generation.
The next interviewee was my 63-year-old father. My father obtained a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering in the 1960’s. I presented him with the same three sentences and he responded, “his, his, he, him”. Okay, this was getting exciting. “Can you pass the phone to mom?” I asked. My 61-year-old mother came on the line and said, “his, their, they, them”. She has some college under her belt. I asked my roommate’s mother, who is one generation younger than my mother and works in a middle school. She responded the same as my mother, “his, their, they, them”.
I tried for two other college students who graduated in the 1970’s: my aunt and uncle who are in their 50’s. My uncle is a photojournalist and has a bachelor’s degree and my aunt is from Ireland and has her associates; I was anxious to see these results. When I read my uncle the first sentence, he originally said, “his?” and then he corrected himself and said “their, their, they, them”. My aunt responded exactly as my mother and my friend’s mother had. It seemed that the middle-aged female response was transcontinental.
I decided I needed just one more generation, so I called my grandparents. My grandfather has an 8th grade education and my grandmother graduated high school in 1947. It was more difficult to explain the object of my survey to them, but once they understood, they both answered, “their, their, they, them”. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. However, I think I might’ve found an explanation for why they answered this way.
After looking at the results, collectively, I came to a few conclusions. Females in my generation have accepted the gender neutral “they”, but when they feel they need a gender specific pronoun, they naturally turn towards the female pronoun. Perhaps this is an after effect of the feminist movement? My father attended an East coast university during the 1960’s and has therefore stuck with what he was originally taught. My mother, aunt, and my roommate’s mother however, are in constant contact with their children in person, over the phone, and through email. I believe they have adopted “they” usage from the younger generations. However, they still use the prescriptive “he” when talking about a non-gender specific occupation such as that of a student. My uncle, having grown up hearing “he” is “correct”, originally answered with the masculine pronoun. However, he is involved in the media daily and thus second-guessed himself because he knows he should use the politically correct terminology. My grandparents, having never attended college, used “they” likely because they were never taught, by a prescriptivist at a university, that “he” is “correct”. My favorite response was that of the males in my generation. Both interviewees responded with “their, their, they, them” even though the subjects in the sentences were singular. I don’t doubt that this has to do with the political correctness that has been drilled into their heads since childhood. The survey could possibly be skewed, as well, because I am a female asking the questions. I’m sure no one wanted to offend me (other than my dad) by responding using “he” for any of the blanks.
When I began to write this paper and collect research, I had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. I tried to recall a few of the prescriptive rules we learned in class and remembered the one about gender specific pronouns. It was amazing to see that my survey proved that my all participants in my father’s generation remembered the prescriptive “he” when talking occupation, but that the females seemed more willing to accept the current correctness of saying “they” in the other sentences. My generation has taken easily to using “they” in speech, but often encounters a dilemma when writing a formal paper and typically results to writing “he/she” if the gender is unknown. This is a prescriptive rule that is not often corrected in speech, but that proves a continual predicament when writing formal papers. Many professors allow the use of “they” and yet many are still stuck in the age of “he”. One professor I know allows students to use “he” if the writer is a male or “she” if the writer is a female. I found this to be a fair compromise. Undoubtedly, the norm is going to change along with the generations. It is already visible in the current generation of college students.
Those in my research who attended no college used “their, their, they, them”. Those who attended some college, in my parent’s generation, used “his, their, they, them”. Those who are currently in college used “their, their, they, them” with the exception of the females who used “she, her” for the final sentence. Level of education and generation were the two factors connecting the different usages.