Learning and teaching about pronouns

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I’m starting to look at what I’ll do homeschooling this fall. I’m excited about starting to focus on my five year old more, and I’m wondering what he’ll be willing to learn. His older brother wasn’t much older than five when we started talking about grammar, learning what first, second and third person pronouns are, and the differences between nouns and verbs. While I know that such things might seem silly to teach, they were a fun part of my oldest’s education and I hope that my second son will enjoy learning about them too. I’m hoping to find the time to snuggle up with him and read him Grammar Island, by Michael Clay Thompson, while I move my older son onto the next set in the series, Grammar Town. I’m skim reading the first sections trying to figure out how to approach things. Do I spread the grammar out over a long period of time, perhaps talking about nouns one week, adjectives the next, risking that we’ll lose interest because of the slow pace and small task size, or do we work seriously on it and finish the whole book within a very short period of time? Do I keep the two working on the same grammar topics but in different depth or do I just see how each of them move through their respective courses. Hmmm…..

Point of view and pronounsI like my children learning proper grammar, whether they choose to continue using it or not. Pronouns can get awkward, particularly as the use of the singular “he” for a person of unknown gender is falling away. I see people using plural pronouns such as “they” instead of “he” or “he or she” even when to do so creates an inconsistency within a sentence. Some people resort to “s/he” and some turn to “ze.” In some ways I wouldn’t mind having a gender neutral singular pronoun, though I’d sort of like to have it on top of the gendered ones.

Having two different singular pronouns allows us to use pronouns in descriptions of dialogues. We can write “he said….. . She said….” things. If we had only one pronoun, we wouldn’t be able to do that. Of course it only works with one male and one female. Interactions between males and females have the advantage of being able to described by pronouns, without names and to an extent with the people becoming representative of their gender. An interaction between two men or two women can’t be described that way. Does this change the way we think, act, talk or write? I wonder if perhaps it does. How would things change with three pronouns – one for male, one for female and one for unknown?

There are two fascinating paragraphs in the book Sexing the Body, by Anne Fausto-Sterling talking about the findings of Nigerian anthropologist Oyeronke Oyewumi. Yoruba pronouns apparently do not indicate gender but age relative to the speaker. Oyewumi expressed noted that western scholarship ‘write gender into the society’ rather than privilege seniority over gender. I’m curious about whether Yorubian stories and songs de-emphasis the romantic or sexual relationships and emphasis age and seniority. And what about writing, when the writer’s age isn’t visible or relevant, would pronouns be based on the relationship of the characters to one another or what? Or perhaps the relative age is noticeable only in second person, like the “du” and “Sie” of German?

Just as an exercise, I’m wondering about rewriting stories with different types of pronouns. I’d want to take a short story that has different characters interacting with each other, or maybe an excerpt from a longer story, and then rewrite it with different pronouns. How does it feel with “ze” for all the pronouns, and when would I have to return to using names because the pronouns couldn’t clarify who I was talking about? How would it work with made up pronouns based on other characteristics, other ways of seperating people?

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One Comment

  • Laura Lynn Walsh

    Du and Sie are falling by the wayside in German IME, too. Younger people use Du among themselves more and more frequently. I wonder if any language has ordinal pronouns, such as she-the-first-speaker, she-the-second-speaker or he-the-oldest, he-the-middle-in-age, he-the-youngest. A friend of mine once told me that Japanese has different forms of address, based on age/respect, but that that, too, was declining in usage. I am a bit uncomfortable grammatically with “they” as a singular pronoun, but it seems to be gaining in usage, perhaps because the alternatives, such as “ze” seem so fake-correct.

    Interesting thoughts.

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