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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Tell Your Best Friend, Whoever They May Be

Nearly anyone who went to college in the United States in the past two decades is familiar with the practice of avoiding “sexist language.” Although linguistic sexism takes many forms, in polite society it is typically evidenced by the grammatically correct use of male pronouns when speaking hypothetically.

“If a person doesn’t breathe, he will die.”

“Anyone with half a brain would have remembered his umbrella.”

…and so forth. The thinking is that as our minds begin grasp the subtleties of our language, we also form deep-seated opinions about the roles of men and women in our society. Allowing the male form of a word to be the default perpetuates a male-dominant social hierarchy.

There are several solutions for concerned or sensitive writers. One is to ignore the problem, because the male pronoun has been the default for centuries in the English language, and it should be obvious to educated people that the generic use of “he” or of “mankind” actually refers to “he or she” or to “humankind.” That solution does not sit well with academics, however.

Another solution is to create new, non-gender-specific pronouns, such as “Sie put hir coat in the closet.” The problem with this solution? It’s ridiculous, and it reduces communication effectiveness.

Some people just switch to the female pronoun whenever gender is not specified, a sort of affirmative action for words. The problem with this? If it was unfair for males, it’s unfair for females. If it can’t be sauce for the gander, it shouldn’t be sauce for the goose, either.

The most common solution among writers who care is to replace “he” and “his” with “he or she” or “her or his.” This is fair, sure, but it also lacks elegance. It’s particularly annoying in public speaking, where you must triple the number of necessary syllables each time the issue comes up.

The best solution thus far has been to simply switch, either randomly or methodically, between the two genders. “If a student wants to get an A in this class, she will study hard. If a student doesn’t mind an F, he won’t even bother to read the book.” But this method is troubling when, as illustrated, the writer switches between a positive hypothetical example and a negative. It also doesn’t work when the piece of writing only calls for one pronoun.

I offer an easy way out of this mess. My solution is particularly appealing because it is consistent with the way many of us already talk. To wit: grammar be damned, we should all use the non-gender specific plural forms “they” and “their” for all hypothetical pronouns. This process will be familiar to anyone who has graded high school or college writing:

“If someone goes into the dark forest, they might not come out. They’ll have to keep their wits about them.”

See how easily that rolls off the tongue? Notice that no gender is being put-upon by the construction of those sentences.

Implementing this solution will require concerted effort on the part of all of us. Grammar cops, take note. It is now acceptable to say, “Each doctor will write prescriptions as they see fit.” If we spread the word, we can change our language for the better.

If somebody has a problem with this, they should keep it to themself.

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