Bud Herron column sig

One of my college professors once asked “Who is it?” in response to a knock on his office door.

“It is I,” came the reply.

“Go away,” shouted the professor. “I don’t intend to waste my day talking to another (darned) English teacher.”

Of course, “It is I” was grammatically correct — so rule-book correct that the closed door did nothing to block a clear mental picture of a stiff-backed visitor, with round spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose, stopping by to discuss the syntax of Homer’s “Iliad.”

“It’s me” is such a common “mistake” that the “wrong pronoun” is now the “right pronoun” by popular vote.

I know English usage by popular vote can send grammar teachers — and people who lift their pinky fingers at just the right angle while sipping a cup of afternoon Tetley tea — into linguistic tremors, but we all need to remember English is a living language.

English is an evolved Germanic language. (You know, a child of archaic German, the language bent on making up new words by stringing together old words in the hope that entire books can some day be written without spaces or punctuation.)

These barbarian roots, however, did not sit well with grammar gods who have been making the rules for centuries. They have preferred the more predictable structure of Latin — the mother tongue of the “Romance languages” — such as French, Spanish and Italian. Unable to change evolutionary history, the gods decided simply to force English into the grammatical rules of Latin. Success has been marginal.

Unlike Latin, English is a living language — and a somewhat democratic one. In the long run, the people who speak the language determine what is “correct and incorrect.” Sometimes, the spoken changes of the majority take centuries to get the grammar-book seal of approval, but usage most always wins.

Personal pronouns — all of those substitute words for the names of people — currently are on the battle front. The battle is being fought intentionally by word warriors in the name of gender equality. They ask why the pronouns “he” and “him” are used in formal English every time a writer or speaker refers to people in general — such as, “Each person in America has a right to speak as he pleases.”

And why, they ask, should we be assigning male and female gender labels to people at all in a world where so many define themselves as neither, or reject the idea of “gender identity” altogether?

That battle rages between so-called liberal and conservative tribes on several fronts — both political and religious. On the Christian front, the faithful have argued for nearly a century over what to call God in second reference — conservatives saying God is a “he” and liberals saying God is not definable by gender. Several “mainline” denominations have worked to rewrite songs and liturgies to remove the “sexist language” of old.

All that intentional haggling over pronouns aside, most of the changes now in play are coming because the old grammar book rules are — what shall I say — stupid. Rigid rules for use of singular, gender specific pronouns — “he, she, him and her” — have lost the battle by popular usage. English speakers overwhelmingly use “they, them and their” as the singular pronouns of choice.

Why struggle to say: “No one can think his or her way out of the pronoun confusion unless he or she really tries”? Why not say: “No one can think their way out of the pronoun confusion unless they really try”?

Language is for communication. The grammarians need to give us a break.

If someone asks you who gave you such a radical idea, please don’t tell him or her it was I.

Bud Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus.