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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.