Friday, 27 April 2007

singular they redux

Some time back I permitted myself a lengthy and inconclusive pedant-whine over the incapacitating deformities which mistaken ideas about gender neutrality are delivering unto the English language. Well, the problem isn't going away. One example will do:

The poet is not too impressed with the looks of their mistress.

What drives a native speaker of English to produce a diseased sentence like that one? As I said before, I think it's because students have been told or have intuited that they is not only an acceptable substitute for he or she, it's an enlightened one, freed from the retrograde & benighted shackles of excessively gendered language. The trouble is that they faithfully apply this principle even in places where it's ludicrously inappropriate, as above, because the gender and the singularity of the subject is already well established (the poet there is Shakespeare) and so using 'they' instead of 'he' or she' just confuses the reader, who not unreasonably entertains momentarily the notion that the mistress mentioned must belong to (or be shared about amongst) some as yet unspecified third party (or parties).

The Wikipedia article on singular they reports that where 'they' is used in place of gendered pronouns, more time is required to read and comprehend, which is enough of a reason for me to ask my students to avoid using it. That article is important to me - despite being almost unreadable and probably deeply unhelpful for those looking for guidance, for the kinds of Wiki-endemic reasons that David points out here, I take heart from the Talk page evidence that other people exist who care enough to have lengthy internet arguments about this issue. I'm cheered, for instance, by the fact that somebody has objected to the use of the word "prescriptivist" (to describe people who think grammar has rules for a reason & they shouldn't be tossed aside lightly) on the grounds that it's a denigration. And it is: in this particular instance, the implication is that a prescriptivist is a straitlaced, hung-up square bigot with oppressive ideas about gender and subjecthood.

Others who've contributed to the Wikipedia article suggest that by dividing pronouns into two neat and mutually exclusive genders, language excludes transgendered persons. I know nothing about it really but my guess is that 'trans'gendering involves crossing or embracing multiple genders, not sidestepping gender altogether. There is a reason why we don't refer to a person as 'it'.


21 comments:

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes!

*pumps fist*

Of late I have felt so oppressed and cowed by those bloody know-alls at Language Log that I've almost stopped whining about this kind of rubbish usage, but your post has cheered me up.

I particularly enjoyed the grautitously false dichotomy that is 'Lady/Man'.

Pavlov's Cat said...

'gratuitously'

(!)

lucy tartan said...

Not seeing a lot of difference in the lady/man binary, myself. It all comes down to accessorising, basically.

Dorian said...

That man looks like Owen Wilson.

lucy tartan said...

I thought of Simon Gallagher.

Meredith said...

I loathe "they" in those PC contexts. It's impersonal and annoying.

The bloke in red has just got off the train. His only daughter is waiting for him with her new fiancee, Rex. They all squeeze into Rex's yellow sports car & the Dad gets a sinking feeling. He knows the weekend isn't going to go well.

Ampersand Duck said...

But he's the Lady! she's the Man! And the old dude is the Classic! Don't we read from left to right? Hmmm.

M-H said...

Ampersand, you crack me up. Old knitting patterns are often good for storytelling. The facial expressions are frequently most amusing.

Teaching essay writing some years ago brought some classics: "Abortion is a matter between the woman and their doctor" is one I remember vividly.

boynton said...

Maybe the gender's all in the Ply?(of the beholder?)

David said...

Surely there is some organisation campaigning for that gender neutral pronoun? If there was a referendum, I'd vote for Xe, though Ze and Mer have their appeal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun
However surely the YOUS campaign is more urgent.

Hil said...

Laura, are you familiar with Henry Churchyard's page on the singular their in JA?:

http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html

Henry can hold forth on it, and has been advocating the use of the singlular their in everyday language online for about 15 years!

lucy tartan said...

Yes I am, Hil. I don't much like the way JA's theys and theirs get brought out as examples in these arguments. JA wouldn't use it in the contexts I keep seeing it used in, and I don't think she uses it to contain multiple genders. She doesn't ever use it in such a way that the reader gets confused about who the referent is.

lucy tartan said...

I mean, I don't think her main aim in using it is to contain multiple genders, rather to contain multiple persons. I suspect there is an important difference between the universalised subject you get in aphoristic statements and the singular one. Conspicuous avoidance of gendering subjects would probably strike her as bizarre, especially when the subject's identity is already established.

pk said...

I think the singular 'they' is perfect for internet comments where the gender of the subject is unkown, ie. when speaking about someone else's opinion for example.

It looks a darn sight better than the ubiquitous 's/he'. It also 'reads' well. The commentary flows better. [I suppose I say this as a frequenter of Metafilter where such a large population means that the gender of individuals is often unknown]

But of course the example you have chosen is, as you say, a diseased sentence. I agree that there is nothing to be gained by foisting gender neutrality onto a person whose gender is already known. My nads are not for neutering by either scalpel or text editor!

Anthony said...

"It looks a darn sight better than the ubiquitous 's/he'"

And where you want to cover bases by referring to she, he or it, it looks a darn sight better than 's/h/it'

Kate said...

I have a vague memory of reading about ambiguous/trans/queer people in some cultures being referred to as lady-men...

nat said...

A note on the "transgendered" thing: there are indeed some people out there who feel most comfortable somewhere *between* the genders, and for whom neither "he" nor "she" is really appropriate. OTOH the term "transgendered" isn't really appropriate here; "intersex" is better. Of course, I'm not sure that "they" is going to be much help for these people, since it still sounds too impersonal to me. But that may change in future - who knows? Maybe one day "they" will simply become the third person sing. neuter pronoun for people. Then we'll need a new word for the third person plural, of course...

Kate said...

no we wont - we manage you singular and you(se) when some other languages have separate words.

Anonymous said...

"She doesn't ever use it in such a way that the reader gets confused about who the referent is.."

Hammer. Nail. Smited accurately.

I feel completely stupid, and struck dumb, by the technicalities of this, as in the Wikipedia. But i certainly detest the use of "he" for both sexes and I think it is pretty dead, anyway.

He or she sounds pedantic, and "their" often flows well.

The rule-breaking doesn't bother me because English is a language of exceptions.

BUT, as suggested here, we do pay a price for the fluidity - we have to pay more attention to getting the referent bit clear.

(ps - interesting oddity about past tense of word "to smite"...)

- barista

Anonymous said...

I like 'they' much better than 'he' meaning everyone.

And also in the case of unknown gender 'someone knocked on the door and we didn't know who they were' etc.

Pity it seems to be spawning these bizarre multiple personalities of the subject htough.

My Mum teaches English to migrants, and they have been told not to write it on the board or use it themselves, but not to correct it if the students write it.

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