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Everybody does it, don't they?

BY JESSICA VOSGERCHIAN
Magazine Editor
Published January 6, 2009

Consider these options:

A. Every student shaves his face or puts on his make-up before he visits home.

B. Every student shaves their face or puts on their make-up before they visit home.

C. Every student shaves his or her face or puts on his or her make-up before he or she visits home.

D. Every student shaves hir face or puts on hir make-up before ze visits home.

Gender confusion, mismatched antecedents, bulky construction and unrecognizable words — these sentences and their problems aren’t likely to go unnoticed by a professor’s red pen.

There are easy solutions to rectify these grammatical quandaries: make Sentence B plural or for Sentence A, use both “his” and “her” for the coordinating activities and switch in “visiting” for “he visits.”

But those edits evade the fact that the English language lacks an unquestioned, singular pronoun that can stand in for an individual, regardless of gender.

It might seem like a petty issue — something spawned from political correctness or academic stuffiness — but once “somebody rips his panty hose” or a friend asks whether it is “your sister or brother who holds his breath the longest,” even the strictest English teacher would have to admit there is a problem.

Attempts to introduce genderless alternatives to the English lexicon like “ze” and “hir” stretch back to the 1800s. But as can be seen everywhere from the presidential election to Facebook News Feed and perhaps even your last term paper, the generic-pronoun question still dogs the English language.

THE PRESIDENCY AND ‘SHE’

Pronouns were front and center in the last Democratic primary race, with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D–NY) forcing “she” into the presidential candidate discourse.

The linguistic novelty of the situation tripped up even Clinton herself. At a rally in Virginia last May, she told a crowd that issues brought up by voters “are ones that the next president can actually do something about if he actually cares about it."

The well-educated Clinton was likely drawing from long-taught grammar rules that promote “he” as the standard singular pronoun before any subconscious belief that the president must be male. But in any case, the senator didn’t let the slip go uncorrected. According to the Associated Press, she quickly added: “More likely, if she cares about it.”

As the Democratic National Convention approached, Clinton paid close attention to her pronouns and antecedents, routinely using “she” and “her” in any sentence she began with “the next president of the United States.”

The pronoun choice expressed confidence that might have swung a few voters, but what it also did was prove that neither “he” nor “she” can be detached from the sexes they represent.

“ ‘She is marked as female, and ‘he’ is marked as male,” English Prof. Robin Queen said. “It’s very difficult for people to actually get a gender neutral read.”

The concept of gender-neutral “he” again cropped up in Clinton’s campaign, as seen in a lawsuit filed last April to keep Clinton off the Nevada ballot.

The plaintiff of the suit, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported, argued that because the U.S. Constitution uses “he” and “him” to describe the president, women are constitutionally prohibited from holding the office.

Ironically, this Reno-based man’s reasoning parallels that of feminist ideologues of the 1960s women’s movement who also rejected the notion that “he” could be gender neutral.

“The push back against generic ‘he’ was definitely coming out of the feminist movement,” said English Prof. Anne Curzan, co-author of the linguistic guide, “How English Works.”

When someone uses generic “she” or another pronoun instead of “he,” Curzan said, it’s a challenge to the idea that language is neutral — a challenge that English speakers have found disturbing, or in other cases, too petty a point to be taken seriously.

“ ‘It’s just language, it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Leave it alone.’ ‘It’s a silly issue’, “ Curzan said. “We want to believe that our language is neutral.”

But underlining the dismissal of the generic “he” debate could be the fear that grammatical rules and social equity might not be so disconnected as contemporary sensibilities would like.

“People have strong beliefs about what is correct English and what is incorrect English and when you challenge those, people are surprised and they aren’t sure what they want to do with that challenge,” Curzan said.

As for the case challenging Clinton’s candidacy, the Nevada court threw out the lawsuit, asserting that the use of “he” in the constitution is not specific to men alone. But this reaffirmation of gender-neutral “he” more likely stems from modern-day ideas of women’s rights and interpretation of the constitution than the belief that “he” is epicene.

Since women couldn’t vote, let alone hold office, in 1787, it’s not unbelievable that the founding fathers did only have men in mind for the presidential office. And of course, there’s the fact that generic “he” was never officially recognized as a grammatical rule in English before 1794.

WHAT WOULD SHAKESPEARE SAY?

Lindley Murray, an American grammarian, is thought to have first promoted “he” as a generic singular pronoun in his widely circulated “English Reader” in 1974.

Murray, who also disparaged dangling prepositions and endorsed “it” as the proper pronoun to describe a child, prescribed generic “he” in his guide by switching out “they” in sentences with singular subjects without explanation.

Queen said that Murray’s correction came at a time when English grammarians were trying to bolster legitimacy for English as a formal written language by making it grammatically more similar to Latin.

She said part of this was ignoring the tendency of English speakers — and in several incidents, writers — to use “they” as a generic singular pronoun.

“In spoken English, the plural has always been around or been around for a very long time,” Queen said. “In respect to the generic ‘he,’ people probably saw the argument that it’s not really a generic.”

Singular “they” can be found in the writings of classic authors like Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Shakespeare, who used “they” at times to refer to yet-unknown characters or in conjunction with general singular nouns like “everybody” and “someone.”

In “Romeo and Juliet,” Friar Laurence warns Romeo of an approaching interloper: “Arise; one knocks … Hark, how they knock!”

But generic “he” is no invention of the 1880s. The neuter masculine pronoun dates back as far as Old English and the advent of written English.

This discrepancy in historical precedent and common usage is a reason why the grammatical debate persists today and why efforts to introduce truly gender-neutral pronouns stretch back for centuries.

Starting as early as 1850, according to the book “Grammar and Gender,” the alternative pronoun “hiser” has been championed repeatedly (albeit, with slightly varying spellings) by different writers and grammarians looking for a single word to supplant “his” and “her.”

In a more recent movement, “hir” and “ze” (pronounced “here” and “zee”) are sometimes used to describe transgender people — a contemporary challenge that confronts the idea of epicene English like never before.

Then there is the colloquial, seemingly organic rise of “yo” in Baltimore public schools as a catchall pronoun for men and women. Examples: “Yo is passing back papers” for “She is passing back papers” or “Peep yo” for “Peep him.”

But as 19th century grammarian James Rogers wrote about the experimental pronoun “thon,” the nongender pronouns “ze” and “hir” and any other that might arise are likely doomed to fail “because everyone has to be told how to pronounce it.”

Rogers, who attempted to propagate his own pronoun inventions “e,” “es” and “em,” wrote that only the “shortest and easiest” pronouns stand a chance. But changing language isn’t as simple as finding the right word — it means convincing people at large to use it in both speech and writing, which is something even Murray couldn’t fully achieve with generic “he.”

“Efforts to introduce an artificial pronoun have historically, soundly been unsuccessful,” Curzan said.

OBAMA’S GUIDE TO GRAMMAR

Today, the English language leaves writers and public speakers in a pickle, having to attach their singular nouns to the potentially alienating “he,” the cumbersome “he or she” or the conventionally ungrammatical “they.”

It’s a problem that President-elect Barack Obama also ran into during his campaign. Known as the “articulate” candidate, or by some the “too-intellectual” or “elitist” candidate, Obama’s syntax choices were up for more than just grammatical scrutiny.

The conscientious politician must have been aware of the criticism he risked if the media’s hyper-scrutiny ever fell upon his singular pronoun usage: “he,” sexist; “he or she,” academic; “they,” dumb.

To the close listener, a single sentence in Obama’s half-hour pre-election commercial exposes his thoughts on the matter: “Every parent in America wants the same thing. A good education for their child.”

The inaccurate pronoun wasn’t noted by any major news outlets — in fact, the general watcher probably didn’t notice it at all, which is exactly why the Obama campaign must have found it advantageous to script the grammatical error into the prerecorded commercial.

Obama’s usage falls in line with recent research showing a decline in use of generic “he” in favor of singular “they” — one study of British English speakers found that singular “they” was used 95 percent of the time.

“To use ‘he’ or ‘she’ would sound overly formal and scripted,” Curzan said. “If it was a scripted choice, it was to follow the spoken standard.”

To appeal to the American people, Obama must have reasoned, it was best to sound like them, no matter what the grammar books say.

FACEBOOK KILLS ‘THEMSELF’

But whereas Obama goes in for populist syntax, Facebook.com, another favorite of the youthful masses, eradicated singular “they” from its News Feed and Mini Feed operations last summer.

It used to be that Facebook referred to users who didn’t list a sex on their profiles as “them,” which led to such News Feed stories as “John Doe edited their About Me” and “Jane Doe tagged a picture of themself.”

But starting in June, Facebook forced their unassigned users to choose a sex. A prompt appeared when these users signed on telling them that while they didn’t have to list a sex in their profile, they must select to be referred to as either a male or female in feed publications.

“ ‘Themself’ isn't even a real word,” Facebook product manager Naomi Gleit wrote in the company blog. “We've used that in place of ‘himself or herself.’ We made that grammatical choice in order to respect people who haven't, until now, selected their sex on their profile.”

In the June 27 post, Gleit explained that the change was made to avoid the awkwardness of “themself” and confusion in translating feed stories into other languages used on Facebook.

“(W)e've gotten feedback from translators and users in other countries that translations wind up being too confusing when people have not specified a sex on their profiles,” Gleit said. “People who haven't selected what sex they are frequently get defaulted to the wrong sex entirely in Mini-Feed stories.”

It is suspicious how Facebook’s new stance on grammar coincided with advertising spots along the side of the website that target users according to age, sex and interests. But despite other factors, the networking site’s decision hits on all the major points of the singular-pronoun conundrum.

Ruling out the clumsy “himself or herself,” the website first turned to singular “they” to respect their users’ desire not to be labeled in terms of sex.

But as Facebook started to attract users from other countries and began to offer its services in other languages, a problem emerged with singular “they.” In languages where making pronouns gender-specific is obligatory whether in writing or speech, there is no understandable translation for “themself.”

Never once entertaining the concept of gender-neutral “he,” the website then made users designate themselves as male and female.

One argument against the change is that convenient translations shouldn’t come at the cost of people’s personal identities and original meaning.

“You’ve chosen not to specify so why in translation would you have to specify?” Curzan said.

But as Gleit wrote in The Facebook Blog, “themself” isn’t an actual word, and it’s also as awkward as could be.

THE PROFESSOR’S CHECKING PEN

Despite all the confusion surrounding singular pronouns in areas of public life, there’s a reason why most college students know not to match their singular antecedent with a plural pronoun.

“There is no such thing as singular ‘they’ — ‘they’ is plural,” English Prof. John Rubadeau said. “It’s counter intuitive and oxymoronic. There are some people in my department who disagree with me, but they’re wrong.”

For Rubadeau, spoken English is spoken English, formal English is formal English and Facebook is irrelevant to the composition of any class assignment short of being a distraction.

It’s a familiar stance for an English instructor, one that holds that while it is one thing for Obama to use plural “they” for the sake of a more fluent speech, formal written English requires a higher level of grammatical attention.

“What you say and what you write are two different things,” Rubadeau said. “ (For example,) ‘Everyone has their own opinion’ — I would say it but I would never write it, because it’s basically illiterate.”

The difference between spoken English and written English is where the University’s English Department splinters. Linguists, like Queen and Curzan, typically believe that the syntax of the common English speaker should be accepted as formal English. But a professor like Rubadeau, who is known for grading grammar severely, refuses to accept a singular plural.

“Students have to kind of know what kind of professor they’re dealing with,” Queen said.

Curzan and Rubadeau are known around the department for their semi-jocular grammatical rivalry. The two have met a few times over a strategy Curzan teaches her students to introduce singular “they” to academic writing.

“What I tell my students, actually, is that they’re welcome to use singular “they,” she said. “And they should footnote the first incident of it and I say they can actually cite me and their professor can come talk to me.”

What the clash of the lecturers shows is that even a department that attests to teach English at the highest level can’t settle the matter of one of the language’s simplest building blocks — generic pronouns elude us still.


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