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More on Gendered Language

Sometimes a quick flip through the dictionary can be most helpful on these matters. The argument by proponents of male-centric language goes something along the lines of saying that using “they” as a universal singular pronoun is grammatically incorrect and would only be done by Philistines who have no sense of literary decency. However, history and, ironically enough, tradition is against them on this.

Here are just a few samples of “they” being used as a universal singular pronoun in Western literature:

— Shakespeare: and every one to rest themselves betake;
— Jane Austen: I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly;
— W. H. Auden: it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy;
— Shakespeare: ’tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech;
— W. M. Thackeray: a person can’t help their birth;
— G. B. Shaw: no man goes to battle to be killed. — But they do get killed;

- From Merriam Webster

All this to say, using “they” as a universal singular pronoun is not bad English whatsoever, nor is it grammatically problematic. Strangely then, it seems to me that the only reason for rejecting a grammatically-appropriate gender-accurate pronoun in favor of a male one would be . . . ideological. Imagine that.

10 Comments

  1. As a huge fan of “they” as a universal singular pronoun, I love these examples. Thanks!

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Lindsay wrote:

    Love it.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  3. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Very helpful. I do copyediting work quite often. Will keep these in mind.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben Myers wrote:

    “Nor is it grammatically problematic” — well, it’s not quite that simple. The trouble is that this usage is grammatically problematic, for the obvious reason that “they” is plural rather than singular. But as you point out, it has established usage (and it’s very common colloquially) in spite of the fact that it’s grammatically problematic.

    Personally, I’d be glad to see more use of the singular “they”. Certainly no editors or publishers anymore should accept the horrid 1990s usage of he/she, or (worse) s/he. (Any writer who does this should have their book contract torn up: note the singular “they”.)

    And of course only a person of depraved morals would want to revert to the masculine generic “he” (which is grammatically unproblematic, but ridiculous nonetheless). But really, I think one of the biggest problems these days is the unthinking conversion of all singular statements into plural: the NRSV is full of indefensibly bad translations of this sort, e.g. where Jesus’ specific address to an individual is turned into some insipid general principle.

    Still, the singular “they” is still very complicated, and there are numerous circumstances where it can’t be used correctly. Some examples: “My child brushed their hair”; “The student put on their shoes”; “The farmer ate their breakfast”; “The nurse decided they would get a haircut”; “My spouse looks hot in their new jeans”. (Actually, I just found this excellent wiki page, which has some very detailed and insightful analysis, and a summary of the many complications.)

    There are technicalities about using the singular “they” where the referent is indeterminate, etc. But I think the main rule is just to use it idiomatically, i.e., where it sounds like normal spoken English. It definitely can’t be adopted as a simple generic solution for all sentences. If it sounds wrong, it probably is; every writer should try to make “their” writing more idiomatic.

    Okay, that’s my two-cents worth. (Sorry, I taught grammar at university for a few years, so I find this stuff perversely exciting and fascinating.)

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    Ben,

    The examples you gave where “they” would be used as a “singular” are all with reference to particular people…not to a general humanity! Of course it would be ridiculous to use “they” in any of those instances because your spouse is not a “they” but a particular person; the only reason to use they in these instances, I would assume, would be to do so intentionally to shake up a given identity with a presupposed gender…but that kind of thing doesn’t seem to be what folks are talking about here (I’m sure folks would shake their head in shame as they whisper to themselves: “identity politics”).

    But, speaking of that sort of thing, the use of “s/he” is used in some feminist theory to refer to a performative blurring of identity, for instance in a transgendered person, or someone in drag — a specific way of saying that the typical assumptions of she and he here are performatively confused (cf. Judith Butler and at least one article by Mary McClintock Fulkerson where she deploys Butler’s understanding of performativity in a discussion of transgendered/drag feminist reflection). In other words, this is not as anathema to me as it is to you, Ben.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 6:17 am | Permalink
  6. Nate W wrote:

    Some of those examples, though, could be said of people whose gender is not known: we might find ourselves wandering into a farmhouse, find some used dishes in the sink and say to ourselves, “The farmer ate their breakfast.” Grammatically, the correct pronoun is the problematic “he,” since we’re referring to an individual whose gender we do not know. I think that’s the problem that Ben’s trying to raise. The English language does not have a good gender-neutral singular pronoun; “it” just doesn’t do the job because it’s impersonal, and “he” and “she” are both gendered. That leaves us without any clearly good word choice in some circumstances.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I seems to me that in those cases there are some pretty obvious ways of just writing the sentence differently that are not problematic at all.

    “The farmer’s breakfast has been eaten.” or even easier, “The farmer has eaten breakfast.”

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  8. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Yes. This is why “dynamic equivalence” translations are helpful. A lot of complaints about gender-inclusive idiom comes from the standpoint that the syntax of the source language must me conveyed as closely as possible in the receptor. If a more dynamic approach is followed, the syntax can be changed to allow for the new idioms to conform to good English style while at the same time accurately conveying the meaning of the original.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:58 am | Permalink
  9. Chris wrote:

    I think Halden may be right in his original statement (contra Ben): the use of ‘they’ is not grammatically problematic. Confusing, possibly; but not problematic. The debate will eventually get to the whole issue of what is grammar. The positions fall somewhere along the spectrum of 1) a set of rules existing prior to a language, and 2) the collective will of language users. I don’t meant to take that up. But I do take some issue with the notion that the English language does not have a good gender-neutral singular pronoun. We do. It’s ‘they,’ in many circumstances (see the several examples already given). Just as other languages’ grammars allow for some confusing person/verb and antecedent/pronoun relations, we shouldn’t insist that English have for us a good gender-neutral singular pronoun. For instance, Greek allows for (but does not always use) singular verbs with neuter plural nouns. I see no reason why English can’t allow for a plural pronoun to have a singular antecedent in some cases. And I see no reason why we can’t say that it is grammatically correct. But then again to take this up would require some discussion of what is “grammatically correct,” which would lead us to what is grammar.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  10. Ben Myers wrote:

    “The farmer has eaten breakfast.” Yes, exactly: I wasn’t suggesting that my examples (the farmer, my spouse’s jeans, etc) were difficult to resolve. I was just pointing out that sentences like these would have to be resolved in other syntactic ways, since “they” is not simply a gender-neutral singular pronoun. If it was, you could use it in any of those examples.

    The reason you can use “they” in some circumstances (e.g. where the referent is indeterminate) is simply because of its common idiomatic use in this way. But there will still be many cases where you have to restructure the sentence in another way: and the reason for this is that, strictly speaking, English simply doesn’t have a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

    I don’t mean to be pedantic, and I’m totally on board with using the singular “they”. I’m just pointing out that it’s not nearly as simple as saying that this is “grammatically unproblematic” as a general solution, or that “we have a perfectly good gender-neutral singular pronoun”, etc.

    To parachute in a phrase from Hauerwas: where the gender-neutral singular is concerned, writers have only tactics, not strategies.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

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