Friday, July 18, 2008

My Resistance to 'They' with a Non-Gender-Specific Singular Antecedent: Going, Going ...

The other day in my column, I ran an interview with Grammar Girl, the queen of the grammar podcast and my new e-friend. Her real name is Mignon Fogarty and she has a new book out, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

The column was a Q&A with her, which I trimmed down to column length. Soon after, I got an e-mail from Fred in Southern California:
Your interview with Mignon Fogarty interested but puzzled me. I’m sure that
she must understand the principle of agreement of a pronoun with its antecedent;
yet, in response to your question “Do you get grief from grammar snobs?” she
responds, “…the more rude someone is, the more likely they are to be wrong”
[italics added]. Would it be rude of me to request a word of comment about her
I wrote Fred back. But it didn’t occur to me until just now how two-faced I can be in situations like this. My column readers seem a very different set from the people who see my blog. The column appears in little community news sections that cover city hall votes and school plays. People who read it tend to be older and more traditional. People with names like Fred and Rose. You know -- people who scare me. So I tend to sugar-coat my responses: “Yes, traditionally you’re right. But authorities are loosening their standards on this stuff. Blah, blah …”

The truth is, I believe that this rule is almost dead. The word “they” and its corresponding forms might not appear in the dictionary with the definition “he or she” yet. But I think they will soon. It has clearly become the most popular alternative to saying “he or she” in every sentence.

It’s a “skunked” usage right now: It’s in transition from being considered wrong to being considered right. Which means that lots of people who were taught it’s wrong will stand by that teaching. Understandably so.

Still, if anyone wants that rule to live forever, they are probably going to end up disappointed.

(Now I'm off to check whether I edited out of the Q&A any discussion of this what would have explained it before Fred fired up is computer! I'll probably run the full Q&A here soon, once the papers who carry my column have all had a chance to run it.)

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Joel said...

I don't really like any of the alternatives . . . and, therefore (?), I use them all. It seems to me that the language is broken here, but saying that we ought to get it fixed in a gender context evokes exactly the wrong images.

Arbitrarily picking a gender is the most fun, but also dangerous and anxiety-inducing; I'm always sure that someone will make an uncomplimentary inference from my assignment of whichever gender to the context. Yaknow, whatever "someone" is doing, you're making a value judgment by suggesting that that someone is a she or a he.

I should give some props to a young friend of mine (here's to you, Jordan), who--in a related conversation about the fact that God is, depending on your perspective, neither or both male nor/and female--used (coined?) the pronoun "Hirm"--which I further ambiguate to be both nominative and accusative.

That's what I think we really need: a neutral that's not neuter(ed), neither male or female but not "it."

June Casagrande said...

"Hirm" is awesome. I once wrote a short story in which I proposed as a neuter pronoun "hu," pronounced "who."

A few years later, a language expert was proposing the neuter pronoun, "hu," pronounced "huh."

I think it's going to be "they" and "their." That's just what people are doing. But in the meantime, I share your frustration with the downsides of all the alternatives. "When the writer submits her query, she should ..." likely inspires an antifeminist groan in a lot of readers. "He" makes a girl sound like she's deliberately NOT choosing the feminist alternative, like she's deliberately saying, "Please don't think of me as one of THEM.

But the most important thing, as you pointed out, is to be very careful about using the word "fix" in gender contexts.

: )

goofy said...

Since "they" has been used as a common-gender and common-number pronoun by the best writers for 700 years, I think the question is "when will the mavens make it unacceptable?"

Janet S. said...

If we really followed "the principle of agreement of a pronoun with its antecedent", we'd still be using "thee" and "thy". The Quakers resisted singular "you" for a couple hundred years, but pretty much gave up in the 20th century. Unlike "you", "they" doesn't completely replace its singular third-person counterparts; it only replaces them in specific contexts. But any native speaker knows perfectly well when they can use it.

June Casagrande said...

I didn't know that about the Quakers! Though I always assumed that there were similar examples of resistance to language changes throughout the history of the language. Still, I didn't know that guy on my oatmeal box was bucking to make me say "thee" and "though." Just for that, I'm buying the instant kind next time. That'll learn 'im.

Joel said...

In defense of the Quakers (presidents and pitchmen notwithstanding, they're not all crooks and even he wasn't so bad, especially when you consider his party's successors), it's sad that we can no longer tell the difference between second person singular and plural, except where "y'all" and "you'uns" and "youse" and such are used--and not even there, in that the obvious plural (e.g., "y'all") is often used as a singular itself.

June Casagrande said...

He was a Quaker? I had no idea.

When he was Quaking, I was in living in Flordia, saying stuff like, "Y'all sound so ignorant when you say 'you'uns.'"

(Not really. But it was in that Southern state that I attended college, got my bachelor's in political science, and graduated without ever hearing that he was a Quaker.)

Now, what's for breakfast ...?


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