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Pronoun pitfalls

Navigating a world that has abandoned gender norms


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Pronoun pitfalls
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For much of my adult life, I’ve covered high school and college sports for various publications, including WORLD. For most of that time, I had no question whether the athletes involved were male or female.

As far as I’m concerned, I still don’t.

Still, it’s become quite apparent that I’m navigating a rapidly changing sports landscape.

I write a weekly sports column for a California newspaper. The column—which has been on hiatus since COVID-19 shut down the sports world—is a roundup of achievements by local athletes competing at the college level.

My lead item in one column concerned a goalkeeper for a small-college women’s soccer team. After reading the article, the goalie emailed the paper to point out an “error”: I’d used the feminine pronouns “she” and “her,” and the goalie identifies as “non-binary.”

“Non-binary,” to the uninitiated, essentially means that a person cannot be classified as “male” or “female.” The person can be both or neither, all depending on the person’s feelings, which may shift from moment to moment.

Anyway, because the goalie identifies as non-binary, the goalie asked that the online version of the article be changed to use “they/them pronouns … to reflect my true gender identity.”

OK, just a few problems with that.

Let’s start with the most obvious one: grammar. To use an expression like “they is,” for instance, goes against every rule of subject-verb agreement ingrained in me since elementary school—it would be grating to write and even more so to see in print under my byline. It would also invite a hailstorm of criticism from grammarians.

As a society, are we really going to rewrite the rules of grammar to appease a tiny but vocal minority?

As a society, are we really going to rewrite the rules of grammar to appease a tiny but vocal minority?

Then there’s the related problem of reader confusion: The pronouns “they” and “them” refer to multiple persons, not just one. To write “they are” when referring to a single person would cause readers to reread a sentence multiple times, trying to figure out who else I’m writing about.

Third, when I’m writing about a gender-specific sports team, it’s a fair assumption that the team’s players belong to that gender. I never interviewed the goalie for the column—I rarely interview the athletes I write about because the column would grow quite lengthy if I did. But even if I had interviewed the goalie, I would never have thought to ask, “Are you a woman?”

For one thing, asking that question would feel incredibly awkward. For another, many female athletes would likely take offense to it—especially given the stereotype that female athletes aren’t feminine. And practically, confirming whether every athlete on a women’s team actually identifies as female is both time-consuming and ridiculous.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s this: my conscience. Journalists are in the business of objective truth. Romans 3:4 says, “Let God be true, and every man a liar,” and I cannot reject the truth made clear in Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 19:4—namely, that God made us male and female.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve repeatedly referred to the goalie as “the goalie.” This reflects my intent to avoid using pronouns of any sort when writing about people like the goalie—whose college career ended in December—in the future. In the spirit of Christian love, I don’t want to show disrespect when referring to athletes who identify as “non-binary” in future articles.

(I also don’t want the paper’s publisher to field complaints from LGBTQ+ persons or their allies.)

But I cannot accommodate the goalie’s request that I use her preferred pronouns, either.

Whoops, I did it again—I called the goalie “her.” But honestly, it was no accident.

It’s not just that the goalie is biologically female—a fact I can’t ignore and the goalie cannot deny. I did it to illustrate how challenging writing without pronouns can be.

Sure, I can write, “The goalie has 16 career shutouts,” as opposed to “The goalie has 16 shutouts in her career.” But economy of words notwithstanding, the latter sentence can feel more natural within the flow of a story.

I’m not the only one who’s under fire in this regard, either: A federal judge in Connecticut, where multiple female high school track-and-field athletes are suing to keep girls’ sports strictly for girls, ruled on May 12 that the athletes’ lawyers cannot refer to “transgender females” as “biological males.” Essentially, the judge is forcing the athletes’ lawyers to acknowledge that boys who identify as girls are, in fact, girls—which could undermine the athletes’ entire case.

Frankly, I think that was the point of the judge’s ruling. And if I were in the lawyers’ shoes, I would not comply—even if it meant being found in contempt.

Other sportswriters may kowtow to the forces of political correctness. I cannot and will not.


Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Syracuse University School of Journalism, and he has been a sports reporter for 25 years. He is also a licensed attorney. Ray resides with his wife, Pauline, and daughter in Keizer, Ore.

@RayHacke43

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WMAC7466

"Let God be true and every man a liar." I think you have demonstrated right there, Ray, why you must continue to write as your conscience in Christ dictates. Faithful to God and not to culture. May His grace support and sustain you in your calling. 

Bob Hinkley

Excellent article. Your reasoning and your sense of morality are superior to that of those who are making ridiculous changes to our dictionaries.