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Editor at Large Politics Written English

S/he, Zey, Yo…How Do We Get Her Into English?

There has been quite a kerfuffle lately (and I’m only allowed to use that word because of the type of blog this is) over the long search for unmarked ways of expressing gender neutrality in English.

More specifically: when you want to talk about everybody’s hats, do you use the traditional masculine his–Everyone has his hat–or do you adopt the gender-neutral but grammatically dubious their?

I try to avoid the situations altogether, rewording sentences to remove any temptation to choose one way or the other. But, for the record, I think that using “their” is the closest solution we have right now. This is one of the few areas in which I disagree with my gurus Strunk and White–as Geoff Pullum so concisely rebuts them (emphasis mine):

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for five minutes?

In any case, the quest for a more inclusive pronoun in English pales in comparison to the struggles that countries with more gender-dependent languages must undertake, countries in which the words themselves exclude women by their very nature. And even the folks in these countries are making changes, so this language conservatism in English should go right at the window, as far as I’m concerned. If singular “they” was good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the two non-English cultures I’m most familiar with, Spain and Germany, and how their speakers are taking gender inclusion in language into their own hands, clunky though it may be.

7 replies on “S/he, Zey, Yo…How Do We Get Her Into English?”

Annie Glimmerglasssays:

Wow…old habits die hard. I couldn’t possibly use “their” in this case. It feels so, so wrong. Your example of the brother and sister didn’t bother me in the slightest. I liked it. It sounded correct. That’s what makes horse races, I guess. And families. 🙂

Now that is interesting. May I ask how old you are? It must be a generational thing…although Geoff Pullum’s DOB via Wikipedia is 8 March 1945.

Annie Glimmerglasssays:

I’m younger than you think. And I would have used “though” instead of “although” in your comment. Care to comment?

Kenneth Mosssays:

I wish I had saved an article in the Journal of the California State about 2 years ago in which this issue was discussed. I agree with that author (whomever he may have been): “…your brother and sister each has his or her own personality.” Now, I AM old, so maybe it is a generational thing…..but using “their” is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Kenneth Mosssays:

Oops! That should have been the Journal of the California State Bar. Sorry. I speak much more gooder than I type.

@Annie: Though and although is definitely one I haven’t thought about. That one’s going into the future posts file. Didn’t mean to make assumptions about your age, but these prescriptivist scuffles are often generational.
@Kenneth: Is there anywhere one can get hold of the JCSB issue? It’s always interesting to be able to look at these linguistic issues from a legal standpoint. His-or-her, to my mind, is just too long! Then again, in legal realms length isn’t really a problem, is it?

Annie Glimmerglasssays:

So my darling b.f. wants to comment that he prefers his/her. Of course he’s just a youngster like yourself, ms. blogmeister.

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