When I was a sleepy-eyed freshman at CU (why did I ever sign up for 8 a.m. classes?), I remember a dirt track that cut across the otherwise lush grass of the Norlin quad. Although there were many wide sidewalks crisscrossing campus in neat 90-degree angles, students consistently took this diagonal shortcut to the humanities building. After rain or snow, it became a muddy mess, so people walked along the edges of it, widening the scar. Even after the university put up caution tape to block the unsanctioned pathway and prevent further damage, the miscreants continued tromping where they weren’t allowed.
At that time in my life, I fancied myself a stickler for the rules. I was a quiet, mousy kid whose parents once scolded me when they caught me reading Shakespeare by flashlight under my covers after bedtime. Even with no vehicles in sight, I would feel vaguely ill if someone induced me to jaywalk on a red light. I was one of those nerds who actually read the terms and conditions before clicking “I agree.”
But I was also a noob navigating a sprawling campus trying to find all my classes and get to them on time. The flimsy yellow blockade across the dirt path was ample deterrent the first time I encountered it, but eventually my devotion to the rules began to deteriorate. It would be so expedient to cut across to reach my “Haha, You Really Want to be a Journalist in this Economy?” class on time. Almighty Dog forgive me, but I caved. I stained my soles and soul in that sinful mud.
This weakening of my resolve has bled into other areas of my life, most recently blurring my hardline views on the rules of language. I had been taught to use “he or she” instead of “they” when referencing a person of indeterminate gender. “They” and “them” are plural pronouns; you’re not supposed to use them to refer to a single person. But it’s such a clunky substitute, and it doesn’t even work when you’re writing about someone who doesn’t fit into the “he or she” binary. As a lifelong sci-fi fan, I was delighted when I first heard “zie” and “hir” as alternate pronouns, but alas, those alien alternatives don’t seem to be catching on. People would rather use something familiar, and we’ve been misusing “they” and “them” for decades as a stand-in for English’s absent singular gender-neutral pronoun. There aren’t many options left, and it would be so much easier to take the shortcut. Should we cave?
Much like the gene pool, a healthy language is in a constant state of flux. Someone is always breaking the rules, and someone is always yelling to get these kids off their lawn. But when enough people break the same rule, they make a new rule. And without these verbal vandals, we’d never have added a bunch of cool (low-temperature?) words to our collective vocabulary.
Eventually, the university gave in and paved the path. The people had spoken. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Plural or singular.