Quote from mini review of Star Wars: Episode II

Don’t be afraid of Them

Off topic on 31 August 2010

Dennis Baron, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, is the latest grammar pundit to write about the lack of English singular pronouns that don’t have to be selected according to the sex* of the person referred to. The difficulty is evident in formulations such as

From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.

People likely to quote this (from Marx) are unlikely to be intentionally sexist, but

From each according to his or her ability; to each according to his or her needs

just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Setting the problem in a more everyday context, Baron quotes the Guardian’s grammar-obsessive Lucy Mangan:

You can’t say, “Somebody left their cheese in the fridge”, so you say, “Somebody left his/her cheese in the fridge”, but then you need to refer to his/her cheese several times thereafter and your writing ends up looking like an explosion in a pedants’ factory.

Quite. But hang on: if it’s so wrong, why did the idea of saying “Somebody left their cheese in the fridge” strike Lucy in the first place?

There are all sorts of things you really can’t say. You can’t say

Somebody left its cheese in the fridge

because this is turning a human being into an inanimate object, which is rude (and ungrammatical, since ‘its’ doesn’t agree with ‘somebody’). Nor can you say

Somebody left hiser cheese in the fridge

because nobody will have a clue what you’re on about. But you can say

Somebody left their cheese in the fridge

without either sexism or risk of confusion. So why not just do it?

Baron quotes an astonishing number of other unisex pronouns proposed at various times, including thon, hi, le, ip, ne, nis, nir, ir, hizer, ons, e, ith, heer, hie, ha, hesh, thir, himorher, se, heesh, hse, kin, ve, ta, tey, fm, shem, se, jee, ey, ho, po, ae, et, heshe, hann, herm, ala, de, ghach, han, mef, ws and ze. These are all clearly the work of cloth-eared fools. But, he concludes,

Despite this wealth of coinage, there is still no widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun.

Like Lucy Mangan, Baron appears to be in a sort of pedantry-induced state of denial. Does he read nothing but subedited copy? Has he never overheard a conversation outside his own faculty’s corridors? Of course there’s an accepted unisex pronoun. It’s they/them/their. Most people use it without thinking twice – even grammar pedants like Lucy (until they force themselves to think twice and reject it).

And there’s absolutely no problem with it. It leads us into no grammatical blind alleys. All we have to do is treat the noun as plural, and everything else follows. OK, maybe it feels odd to say

Whoever left their cheese in the fridge needs to ask themselves why.

Unlike ‘their’, ‘themselves’ is so in-your-face plural that we might stumble over its disagreement with a singular verb form (needs). Maybe we need to coin ‘themself’ (again, something I’ve already heard people say). This will need to shake out over time. But it’s hardly a reason to dismiss the whole idea.

Is it particularly awkward to take a pronoun we traditionally think of as plural and start using it as singular too? Nope. We’ve already done it once. A couple of hundred years ago, if I wanted to address a single individual, I would use the pronoun ‘thou’. (It’s still used in some places in the north of England.) Today, I use ‘you’, which originally referred only to more than one person. Baron even mentions this in passing. Yet, according to his research,

the rule books now opt for he or she and not an invented word to replace the generic he.

These rule books are crazy. We don’t want clumsy workarounds like ‘he or she’; nor do we need to make words up, much as it would please the editors of dictionaries. A perfectly good solution has emerged naturally.

And if the writers of the rule books can’t accept it, frankly they need hises or herses heads examining.

*It’s confusing that linguists use ‘gender’ in reference to male/female sexual classification, commonly and properly referred to as ‘sex’, as well as to grammatical gender. Whether a word’s gender is masculine or feminine has no necessary correlation with the sex of the thing it refers to. (In German, for example, a girl – das Mädchen – is neuter.) In this sense, nobody would bother trying to come up with a ‘gender-neutral’ pronoun, because there’s no politics in grammatical gender. What we need to satisfy our political requirement to avoid sex bias is a pronoun that can refer to people of both sexes. So it seems clearer to talk about ‘sex-neutral’ or ‘unisex’ pronouns.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig Grannell 31 August 2010 at 10:40 am

It’s been interesting to see the shift in editorial policy regarding this point since I started writing for mags about ten years ago. Back then, most of my copy including ‘their’ in this context would be subbed. Today, I can’t think of a British mag that does this, but US publications continue to rewrite ‘their’ into some other form.

Heather 31 August 2010 at 11:03 am

Thank you for ranting so eloquently. The his/her-he/she debacle has bugged me for ages now.

Kris Jones 31 August 2010 at 12:47 pm

The only area that I can think of where using their/them might be difficult is in legislation. I can’t imagine a Parliamentary draughtsmen ever writing, “A person is guilty of an offence if they…”, because of its lack of precision on liability. Legislation therefore always uses the masculine form and I can’t imagine that ever changing.

Adam 31 August 2010 at 12:54 pm

@Kris: Interesting point. Given that the use of singular “they” has been around pretty much as long as written English, and turns up in texts such as the King James Bible, I’d be surprised if it can’t already be found here and there in statute. In your example, the referent of “they” is no less clear than “he”; we know “a person” is the noun for which it stands. I wonder how often it would really be an issue?

daycoder 1 September 2010 at 8:41 am

We should go further. Use ‘thems’ and ‘theys’ as plurals. ;)

Ta for this post it. Bye, bye small piece of annoying pedantry. You won’t be missed.

Thatkeith 2 September 2010 at 8:23 am

Legal English is already often so stilted that it is only really good for showing an anomalous, sterile form of language (non-) development. At least we’re not using Latin any more, eh?
This gender-neutral thing has been bugging me forever. I remember my mum getting wound up by American editors rewriting ‘he’ and ’she’ instead of neutral or traditional-male uses into her manuscripts, forcing a gender hyper-awareness into the text where there wasn’t any in the first place. Thanks for the post. She would have applauded.

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