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The Pesky Problem Of Pronouns

The Pesky Problem Of Pronouns

I got a text Wednesday morning with a link to a story about a bold new initiative at the University of Minnesota.

“I don’t see how you avoid writing about this,” my correspondent wrote.

She was right. As soon as I clicked the link I wanted to share it with you. And yes, even without asking, I’m referring to the sender as “she." 

I’m old school. When I see a woman’s name I assume I’m corresponding with a female.

If you find that presumptuous, you may want to find something else to read today.

For a peek at how our language is about to change at the hands of politically correct academics look no farther than the University of Minnesota.

That midwestern school, home of the Golden Gophers, seems to be on the verge of stifling free expression and rewriting the rules of English grammar in the quest for…oh hell, I’m not sure what they’re trying to do.

They want to reduce “micro aggressions,” I guess. 

Clearly, they want to ensure that no one is ever uncomfortable. Except straight people struggling to communicate without creating an incident that will result in a summons by the local language police.

According to a list of no-nonsense guidelines served up by the “Sexuality & Gender Initiatives” at the Duluth campus, folks are told to ask about pronouns rather than doing what we’ve always done: assuming that a person who stands 6’4” has a beard and an 18” neck is a him. Or that a 5’4” person wearing a bra and eyeliner is a her

This isn’t just a benign suggestion, either. As the first link shows, the university is chewing on a policy that would call for expulsion of students and sacking of professors for failure to address folks by their “preferred pronouns.”

Look, I get what’s going on here. We need to be sensitive. And there’s no reason to be deliberately cruel to people who don’t conform. Many of us try to just accept people as they are.

That doesn’t mean we have to resort to gibberish, though.


At the risk of unmasking myself as a clueless cisgendered Baby Boomer, I’m just going to say that I will never be comfortable addressing a person as “eirself."

I will have an equally hard time referring to someone with a Duck Dynasty beard as “em” or “eir.” 

And I am never going to use “ve/ver” or “sie/sir” or whatever words are invented to signal that a person may be gender fluid.

Call yourself anything you like. It’s a free country. Just don’t ask me to join in. Or worse, order me to do it. 

Good thing I don’t study or work at UMN, huh?

The stern set of rules to deal with the pesky problem of pronouns includes this:

“PRACTICE! Mispronouning someone is a microaggression  and the best way to avoid causing unintended harm to a student, friend or colleague is to commit yourself to getting it right.” 

(Sorry academics, “mispronouning” is flagged by the spellcheck on my computer. It thinks I’m trying to write “mispronouncing.”  Perhaps the Minnesota language police should have a chat with the Luddites at Apple.)

The pronoun rules are strict even for “queer and trans+/gender non-conforming individuals” who are told they should never politely say they have a “preference” for a particular pronoun.

 “It is not appropriate to refer to personal pronouns as a preference. They are mandatory,” says the paper. 

Oh, and the guide insists that pronouns should never be referred to as “gender pronouns.” 

“Pronouns are not gendered and do not directly correlate with a specific gender.”

Sorry, academics, but that’s exactly what pronouns are. They stand in for a noun and indicate gender. 

Surely someone - a he/she/they from the English department could set hir/vis/zir straight.

Here’s a better suggestion: Henceforth, everyone on the campus of the University of Minnesota should be referred to as “gopher.”

Problem solved.

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