Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
The month of May in Indianapolis is a wonder to behold. This time of year, Hoosiers’ front lawns begin sprouting tiny checkered flags as if they were dandelions. We go crazy for horsepower and prognosticate about who will drink milk in the Winner’s Circle. It’s time to converge on Indycar’s most hallowed site, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and people can’t wait to hear the most famous words in racing: “Drivers, start your engines.”
For years, we heard “Gentlemen, start your engines,” as every driver who qualified was male. But when Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1977, the starting command became “In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines.” As that was (at best) an awkward sentence to utter, the next year (when Guthrie again qualified), the command was modified to “Lady and gentlemen, start your engines.”
As more female drivers have qualified over the years, the wording for the starting command has changed. And in 2017, IndyCar and NASCAR settled on this phrase for all races, regardless of the gender makeup of the competition: Drivers, start your engines.
I like this change. Drivers are drivers, regardless of gender. It mirrors official changes that have become acceptable in English usage. For instance, last year the AP Stylebook made a significant rule change, adding “they” as an acceptable singular pronoun. According to the AP, “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable.”
So, according to the AP, clarity is key here, primarily because the word “they” has always served strictly as a plural pronoun. But, as newer, experimental gender-neutral pronouns like “xe” and “ze” haven’t yet gained popular adoption or garnered widespread awareness, “they” is acceptable, as long as it’s clear to whom the writer is referring. When possible, it makes sense to use the subject’s name for clarity purposes, although that can quickly become redundant.
I know this is a touchy subject. However, as culture and language drive each other forward, rules change. Usage shifts. And regardless of who takes the checkered flag for this year’s 500, my son and I will be cheering for a good race with clean passes and no crashes.
Curtis Honeycutt is a nationally syndicated humor writer. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at curtishoneycutt.com.