The rise of the pronouns

Pronouns, that most boringest part of ‘parts of speech‘, the substitute of the grammar world, dutifully standing in for other, cooler words, has been given a new lease of life. Until recently if you wanted to say ‘Tom likes pronouns and Tom uses them every day.’ and not sound like someone pretending to be a human being, you could simply switch the subsequent ‘Toms’ for ‘he’ and you’d be all set.

Someone left  ______ phone in the classroom. 

Traditional grammarians and the kind of people who would insist you say “I figuratively died!” in case they get confused, argue that as ‘someone’ is singular, the pronoun should also be singular. ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘it’ were the choices on the table but surprisingly(!) they went for ‘he’ as “the Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine. ho-hum. Thus our sentence would read ”someone left his phone in the classroom.’

Ironically, as Henry Hitchens notes it was a woman who promoted the idea that the singular pronoun should be male. Ann fisher, author of the popular A New Grammar (1745) believed that ‘he, him and his’ could be used ‘to cover both male and female in general statements.’

In modern times ‘singular they‘ has become increasingly acceptable, to the extent that almost everyone reading this would accept ‘Someone left their phone in the classroom’. Singular they also neatly solves the gender neutral pronoun issue. When talking about a generic subject such as:

A teacher who talks too much will alienate their students.

And so with even style guides accepting ‘singular they‘ it seemed as if the war was over. But in recent years there has been a disturbance in the force, as if millions of grammarians suddenly cried out in terror…
the current pronouns of English
The recent and quite dramatic media focus on Trans rights and ‘gender nonconforming’ people has shaken pronouns from their moribund slumber. The peak of media focus on trans issues was when 66 year old former Olympian Bruce Jenner announced that ‘for all intents and purposes, I’m a woman.’ Bruce became Caitlyn and he became she.
Those who opposed or mocked this transition were accused of ‘misgendering‘ -the crime of using the wrong pronouns (There is even a twitterbot designed to (rather inaccurately) enforce correct pronoun use). This sudden upheaval in grammatical terms led to some confused. Should we, for instance when talking about the Olympic achievements of this athlete use his or her? Did Bruce or Caitlyn win the 1974 decathlon? Is Jenner her children’s father still, or is she now their mother?
This confusion though is nothing when compared to ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender nonconforming’ individuals. A few years back Facebook introduced more inclusive pronouns for such individuals, around 58 more to be exact. The boring old male and female are still there, but joining them are ‘two spirit‘, ‘agender‘, and ‘bigender‘. And these new genders bring with them new pronouns. The university of Milwaukee, for instance, has a page offering advice to the confused. they list, among commonly used pronouns ‘singular they’. This may sound similar to the ‘singular they’ mentioned earlier but is, in fact, a very different beast. This ‘they’ is used to directly replace ‘she’ or ‘he’ in all sentences.
For instance, Jack Munroe, a food blogger and minor celebrtity has recently come out as Trans and has decided that her pronouns are they/them/their. Personal choice is a good thing, but things start to get a bit confusing when language is used in this way. In the first sentence of this paragraph for instance, I should have written ‘has decided that the pronouns they would like…’ and in not doing so I might be considered thoughtless and at worst possibly a bigot.
Asking the entire English speaking world to change the way the language works for your benefit is an impressive demand. Wikipedia attempts to get round this by constantly referring to her as ‘Munroe’ (ironically recreating the very problem pronouns solve):

Despite working every day, Monroe was unable to make ends meet. By January 2014, finances had improved, and Monroe was able to move into a small 2 bedroom flat with their son.

There are limits to this though and Wikipedia eventually has to actually use said pronouns, resulting in the grammatical horror below:

It was at this point they changed their name from their birth name to Jack Monroe – ‘Jack’ being short for “Jack of all trades“, their nickname.

So Wikipedia has accepted this, as have some news organisations like the BBC, for instance, who when writing about Kit Wilson state:As a child, Wilson never felt entirely female or entirely male. They figured they were a “tomboy” until the age of 16…

That this doesn’t really work becomes clear when we read sentences where who the pronoun refers to has to be explicitly spelt out in parenthesis:

Earlier this year, Wilson asked friends to call them “Kit,” instead of the name they (Wilson) had grown up with…

Here, the usefulness of pronouns as a class of word is nullified entirely. And there is a greater problem which at first isn’t so obvious. You can see it in the sentence below from Wikipedia.

Jack Monroe is a writer, journalist and activist…

Can’t see the issue? That’s because you’re used to normal English grammar. Allow me to explain.

Verbs match pronouns. We say ‘I am’ not (usually) ‘I is’ or ‘I are’. We say ‘he is’ we don’t (usually) say ‘you is’, ‘they is’ and so on. Jack Munroe and Kit Wilson’s preferred pronouns are ‘they’ which takes the verb ‘are’ (they are friends). When we use someone’s name we assume the pronoun in order to work out the verb. That is, when I say ‘John is tired’ the reason I use ‘is’ and not ‘are’ is because John = he. As Jack Munroe does not equal ‘she’ or ‘he’ but ‘they’ the sentence should read:

 Jack Monroe are a writer, journalist and activist…

This is such a normal part of our language that even those trying hard to use the right pronouns are getting it consistently wrong. Below are some examples of what writers should have written about Jack Munroe (I have corrected and highlighted the verbs):

Munroe were born in southend on sea
Munroe have three siblings
Munroe were unable to arrange work
Monroe are non-binary transgender and go by singular they pronouns

This might seem like a fad or something that could never possibly catch on, but the recent case of Leo Soell might give you pause. Soell, who identifies as neither male or female, won a $60,000 settlement for, among others things being subjected to ‘improper gender pronoun use’ after her colleagues refused to call her ‘they’ (they ‘they’?). New York City human right’s commission states that failing to us an individuals preferred pronouns, such as ‘Ze’ or ‘Hir’ is discrimination and may result in a fine. This is a major switch in the way the English language is used. As Deborah Cameron* notes:

Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.

For hundreds of years grammarians pushed back against the common and reasonable usage of singular they. The few were able to demand acquiescence from the majority and be considered justified by dint of their supposed linguistic authority. But even grammarians never had the power to bring legal proceedings against those who used the language in way they disagreed with.In 2016 individuals can demand that every single other person apply an exceptional and arbitrary set of grammar rules to them and expect to be accommodated. It took hundreds of years for singular they to become accepted but now the floodgates appear to be open.

*2019 update*
It now seems that, in theory at least, people can be prosecuted in the UK under hate crime laws for using the wrong pronoun. Stories here and here.

*For a much more detailed look at this topic, check out Cameron’s blog here.

Do women and men process language differently? Is it neuroscience or neurosexism?

Hello internet! 

I’ve been crazy busy the past few months and haven’t been able to blog. I presented in Canada at TOSCON2015 and then presented a new talk at NATECLA. I’ve met some really nice people and had a great time but I’m hoping to get back to blogging now. And to start things off is a guest blog which I’m really excited about. 

Around the time of TESOL 2015 I heard about a talk called ‘Neuroscience, learning styles and teacher training.’ The title worried me as I thought it might be some kind of hymn to woo. Once I saw the slides dear reader, my heart leapt! the authors, Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries did something I’d been hoping to do. They repeat the Dekker 2012 study on neuromyths, but with EFL teachers!  

The study basically asks teachers whether or not they believe statements, like “we only use 10% of our brain” are true or false and the results are shocking! Around 93% of UK teachers believe that employing learning styles will lead to better results, despite evidence to contrary. (more info about their findings here

I wrote to Carol almost as soon as I heard about the research to congratulate her and we’ve been corresponding for months now. I asked her if she would consider writing a guest blog and she graciously agreed (of course, not before Mike Griffin got to her first *shakes fist*). So here it is! I’m exceedingly pleased to present Carol Lethaby writing about two topics which are of interest to me, gender and skepticism. 

Over to Carol…


A big thank you to Russ Mayne, for inviting me to guest blog – in this post I plan to uphold the tradition of debunking popular myths that has become Russ’s trademark. I’ve chosen to focus on the idea of women’s and men’s brains and particularly the idea that the sexes supposedly process language differently.  This is an area of considerable significance to language teachers and one that I have been tackling in both talks and articlesin recent years.

The popular view is that men process language only in the left hemisphere, while women use both their right and left hemispheres to process language, which supposedly makes women better at language. This idea has been repeated again and again in the literature until it has come to be accepted as fact, giving rise to books with such ludicrous titles as:  ‘Why men don’t iron’, ‘Why men never remember and women never forget’, ‘Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps’ and my own personal favourite, ‘Why men don’t have a clue and women always need more shoes’

This video from the entertainer, Mark Gungor, illustrates beautifully the popular idea. There is, however, one problem with this account of things … that it’s not true. Now, you may argue that this is all harmless, and just a bit of fun, – ‘laugh your way to a better marriage’ is the name of Gungor’s website and books – even a great topic for discussion in the language teaching classroom; but is it really harmless if the notion that there are pre-determined differences between the way the sexes think and use language is reinforcing self-fulfilling gender stereotypes? This has been termed neurosexism by Cordelia Fine and others, and in Fine’s awesomely readable book ‘Delusions of Gender’, she really takes researchers to task for shoddy research and rubbish conclusions based on spurious findings:

“It is appalling to me that one can, apparently, say whatever drivel one likes about the male and female brain, and enjoy the pleasure of seeing it published in an reputable newspaper, changing a school’s educational policy, or becoming a bestseller.” (Fine, 2010:  174)

I mentioned some of the appalling, blatantly sexist titles above, but there are of course also books that are taken very seriously, based on the idea that female and male brains are very different – Why Gender Matters, Boys and Girls Learn Differently, The Female Brain, to name but a few.  Supposed inherent brain differences between girls and boys have been used as a reason to separate the sexes and to teach them differently.

So, where did the idea come from that men and women process language differently and how does it fit in with supposed brain differences? Like many a good neuromyth, there was originally some, albeit dubious, research base for this claim.  It started in 1995 when Shaywitz, Shaywitz et alpublished a study based on neuroimaging that showed eleven out of nineteen women’s brains with activation in the left andright hemisphere while the other eight women’s brains and nineteen men’s brains activated in the left hemisphere only, when doing one particular language task (concerned with rhyming words), out of the various tasks that they were asked to carry out.

From this study it was concluded that men and women deal with language differently, with men being more specialised in the left hemisphere and women being less lateralised, further generalised to suggest that men’s brains are more lateralised than women’s, inferring further that this accounts for female and male cognition differences (nicely coinciding with already accepted gender stereotypes (see Gungor above)).

Now, there are several problems with making this conclusion from the study.

Firstly, this is an example of what scientists call ‘reverse inference’ – that is drawing conclusions about what and how people think based on the physical brain.  Fine has no patience for this and she warns of the dangers of drawing conclusions about how we think based on neuroscientific data. “Inferring a psychological state from brain activity … is fraught with peril.” (2010: 151)  Brain scientists warn against making conclusions about cognition based on brain activation seen during imaging and this is precisely what the Shaywitz et al study does.

Secondly, this is a very small study (38 people) and does not address the fact that, in the other language tasks participants were asked to perform, there were no significant differences between male and female participants, nor the fact that not all women displayed the bilateral activation that was so interesting to scientists.

Note too, that all participants were adults, so how can we conclude from this that this is a hard-wired female-male difference?  As neurobiologist, Lise Eliot, points out, nearly all the evidence is based on the adult brain – “Who’s to say that such differences [in the brain] are caused by nature and not by learning?” (Eliot, 2009: 9).  Brain scientists point to gender differences in brain structure being related to the complex interrelationship between genetic factors, our experiences and our biology, in other words, what we do and what happens to us affects what our brain looks like.  “Experience can alter sex differences in brain structure” (2004:  211) says Melissa Hines, a neuroscientific researcher who has been looking at the question of gender and the brain for over 35 years.  As educators, doesn’t it seem more helpful to look at how gendering in the classroom may contribute to learning differences as well as how education can remediate those differences?

Thirdly, and most importantly, neuroscientific studies done since have notshown the sex differences in language processing found in the Shaywitz study.  It has been found that most women and most men process language in the left hemisphere of the brain and that both sexes show a tremendous amount of interconnectivity between the hemispheres.  After carrying out a meta-analysis of functional imaging of sex differences, Sommer et al (2004) conclude:

“In summary, this meta-analysis found no significant sex difference in functional language lateralization in a large sample of 377 men and 442 women. Thus, the hypothesis that language functions are generally presented more bilaterally in women than in men is not supported. This suggests that language lateralization is unlikely to underlie sex differences in cognition, and their biological basis remains elusive.”

So why haven’t we heard more about Sommer’s study (and others like it) saying there is no support for innate differences between how the sexes process language? Why does the popular media continue to promote the idea that male and female brains are “completely different”?  Unfortunately studies that don’t show differences between the sexes are often underreported.  Hines talks about this problem as well as the converse “overreporting of positive results” (2004: 6).  To address this issue, Janet Hyde 2005 proposed the ‘Gender Similarities Hypothesis’ after conducting a meta-analysis of 46 meta-analyses of studies concerned with sex differences. She sums up like this:

“It is time to consider the costs of overinflated claims of gender differences.  Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of self-esteem problems among adolescents.  Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data. [my emphasis]” (Hyde, 2005:  590)

This focus on looking for sex differences continues to this day.  In 2013 there was a study splashed all over the newspapers including this headline in the Mail Online “Men’s and women’s brains: the truth! As research proves the sexes’ brains ARE wired differently, why women’s are cleverer ounce for ounce – and men can’t read female feelings

Cordelia Fine responds  by pointing out that 1) the conclusions don’t take into consideration differences between larger and smaller brains (they have different structures because of size – male brains tend to be larger because men tend to be larger and larger brains are needed to control larger bodies), 2) there’s no discussion of the plasticity of the brain and the effect of our experiences on our neural structure (see above)  and 3) the study is full of reverse inference based on legitimising tired stereotypes (you can see Fine’s full response to the study here).   But the damage has already been done and the study is quoted as ‘proving’that female-male differences are hard-wired when in reality it shows no such thing!

Peddling sex differences in brain function is clearly ‘sexy’ and sometimes lucrative, and neuroscience is a very tempting way to try to explain differences between the sexes. Isn’t it time, though, that we got away from this obsession with looking for hard-wired differences between the sexes and considered the part that our experiences and especially education, play in female and male disparities?  Given the potentially harmful nature of neurosexism, shouldn’t we be more critical and look more closely at what the studies should, can and do tell us, rather than merely accepting the narrative that confirms our cliché-ridden beliefs and sells yet more books and toys?


Fine, C (2010) Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.
Hines, M (2004) Brain gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hyde, J S (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis’ American Psychologist, Vol 60 (6), Sep 2005, pp581-592
Lethaby, C (2014) ‘Children, gender and learning’ in Primary Methodology Handbook:  Practical ideas for ELT Richmond Publishing
Sommer, I et al (2004) Do women really have more bilateral language representation than men? A meta-analysis of functional imaging studies Brain, 127, 1845–1852

It’s a man’s world

If I asked you to name the most influential figures in the TEFL world who would you choose? Ellis, Thornbury, Harmer? What about Swan, Scriviner and Underhill?

Any women?
I always thought it was strange that all the ‘top’ chefs were men, yet cooking was considered women’s work. It seems for some reasons that it’s OK for women to ‘do the cooking’ but the true artistry, the ‘cuisine’ as it were, is produced by men. How did that happen?

To my mind, the EFL world looks similar. Powell (in Byram 2001) wrote in 1986 (though on what evidence I do not know) that “most language teachers in secondary schools in the UK (and many, though not all, other countries) and in language schools worldwide, are female.” Byram adds that this rules doesn’t follow for universities where men seem to be in the majority.

The places I have worked provide anecdotal evidence that this is true. Women teachers and students have always been the majority. For instance, at my first job, I worked with two female teachers and at company meetings it was clear this was true for most of the other schools (except for the foreign staff). This also held true when I worked in Taiwan. Anywhere where the education was optional, female students always outnumbered male students. Where I work in the UK the majority of the full time teachers are female (8 to 2), but only one of the four senior tutors is. A few years ago when we held an interview for the top job, all five candidates were men. The university I’m currently seconded at has 10 or so English professors but only one who is female. I don’t think this is by design, but I do think it’s interesting.

A 2012 study (N127 double-blind) found that scientists discriminated against female job applicants, giving them lower ratings in “competence and hireability” than male applicants with identical qualifications. The startling thing about this report is that there was no difference found in ratings between those ranking the applicants. That is, women employers were equally likely to be biased against female applicants as men were.
We know there are differences in the way men and women speak, and there is quite a bit of writing about sexism and gender in EFL materials but less about the actual industry as a whole. if we employ the same arguments English as the Lingua Franca folk apply about the number of NNS of English indicating the need to move away from NS norms, doesn’t the number of women, both teachers and students likewise indicate a need for a more equal distribution of influential/prestigious positions in the EFL world?


From 1986 to 1995 an organisation called “women in TEFL” existed with the stated aim of:

giving women in EFL more confidence; improving the status of women teachers of EFL and making sure that they get equal opportunities for promotion; and improving the portrayal of women in language-teaching materials.(Walter & Florent 1989:180)

The organisation held conferences and there was even, at one point a magazine devoted to female TEFL teachers called ETHEl (Byram 2001:231) I have no idea what happened in 1995 to bring an end to the movement, -perhaps everthing became equal then?

So is this just my slant on things or are things really somewhat uneven in the EFL world? I would love to hear your opinions. What’s it like where you work? If you know what happened to “women in TEFL” or used to be a member, please get in touch.

2014 update: Potential positive developments in the ‘fair list’. One to keep an eye on (Thanks Tyson)