Posts Tagged ‘their’

Pronouns

July 25, 2009

Heh, heh! That’s probably the worst title for a post in this blog’s history. Is anyone still reading? Well, I’ll just pretend this is going well and forge ahead. Anyway, we’ve been so heavily into reminiscence lately that I thought I’d better talk about something a little more contemporary. And since I don’t do politics. . . .

In our generation, during these last 20 years or so, we’ve witnessed the arrival and installation of a very ugly solution to an old problem with pronouns. You know what I’m going to say, right? I’m talking about this use of “they” and “their” and “them” as singular 3rd-person pronouns when the gender of the subject isn’t known or made explicit.

I agree that our centuries-long use of “he” and “his” and “him” in this situation was not satisfactory. It went smoothly only because we were used to it. In the modern age, we strive to ferret out terms and usages that discriminate against or unfairly exclude people, and in general such striving is good. So, yes, sentences such as “A writer should always be thankful for anyone who reads his book” ridiculously ignore an entire gender of writers, and we needed a better option.

In Japanese, this is a non-issue. There are terms for “he” and “she” in the language, but they’re used much more rarely than in English, even when you know the gender of the subject. Pronouns just aren’t necessary most of the time in Japanese. Sentences very frequently don’t even have a specified subject — you figure it out from context. (For example, if we say “Is talking about politics” or “Sure read that book fast, huh?” I know we’re talking about you, not me.) [It's been famously said many times that English is a language designed to make ideas clear, and Japanese is designed to make them vague. To speak Japanese is to engage in a cover-up. Nothing obscures the facts more efficiently than a good Japanese sentence. This isn't my idea! Japanese friends agree. I once heard a Japanese friend yell "Stop!" (in English) at a Japanese taxi driver when he needed to get his meaning across quickly.]

But back to English, where gender is an issue. . . .

My own ways of dealing with the pronoun problem are: 1.) to structure the sentence, if possible, so as not to need the non-specific pronoun. For instance, instead of saying “Even a resident of a small town should lock his car,” I’ll say, “Even residents of small towns should lock their cars.” Or, if this can’t be done, then 2.) to use “his or her,” “her or his,” “he or she,” “she or he” — or the convenient “s/he.” I acknowledge that this kind of structuring is long and unwieldy, like having to carry your umbrella around all day even between rain showers, but it’s the least among many evils. It’s a burden I’m prepared to bear.

There’s been a big push in certain circles to alternate the use of “he” and “she.” Or, a variation of this concept is advocating the use of “he” by male writers and “she” by female writers. In my opinion, this is by far the worst solution to the problem. This is just plain jarring. I suppose the thinking is that if our society uses this technique long enough, we’ll get used to it, and one day it will be no more jarring than “he” was for so many years.

There may be some validity to the idea of “getting-used-to” — I did make the conscious decision to change from “grey” to “gray,” since I am an American writer, and American editors kept changing my greys to grays. I don’t feel that “gray” is as gray as “grey” is. “Gray” is “grey” with a lot of milk added. But I got used to the change very quickly. Likewise when I discovered about ten years ago that people were no longer typing two spaces after a period, as I’d been taught in high school and had been teaching my students.

My discovery of this was quite a dramatic one. I was actually in class, telling my writing students all about how they should put one space between words and two spaces between sentences (that is, after periods) — the students were all happy and fascinated and nodding and taking notes, because this is stuff they aren’t taught about English in high school — they don’t learn formatting and punctuation much at all, so it’s brand new territory, and they love it. So there I was, wrapping up this great, enlightening lesson, and I finished with the comforting assurance that, if they ever had trouble remembering all the details or {Heaven forbid!} lost my helpful set of notes and guidelines, all they had to do was pick up any book printed in English, see how the formatting was done inside it, and imitate what they saw. To demonstrate the “two spaces after a period” rule, I picked up our textbook . . . which was fairly new . . . and did a double-take. Um . . . well, I thought, I’d try another book, so I picked up something else. Um . . . heh, heh. . . . Everything I could find was showing only one space between sentences! I don’t think the students figured out what was troubling me that day, and mercifully, the class ended.

So I got busy doing some research. I checked the then-current edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and the point in question didn’t even merit a mention. There was no rule about the matter that I could find, which really struck me as odd, since it was such a major deal in Mrs. Bowman’s Personal Typing class. (The Chicago Manual itself, incidentally, was printed with only one space between the sentences.) So then I started e-mailing friends. What I found was that people even five years younger than me had learned to type the two spaces, but everyone younger than that had learned to type only one. There seemed to be this mysterious cut-off point . . . a Paradigm Shift that came along approximately five years after I graduated from high school.

Had a comet passed close to the Earth? Had a hostile country employed some sort of energy beam that was changing the fundamental concepts of our culture? Was it something in the water? Had some previously enigmatic prophecy of Nostradamus been interpreted at last, and did it say “one space between sentences”?! And why hadn’t I gotten the memo?!

It was not long after that, when I visited the offices of Cricket, that one of the editors finally explained to me what was going on. It had to do with the change from typewriters to personal computers, the shift from the fixed, old-style typesetting to the automatic systems of character differentiation. On our old typewriters, the letter “i,” for instance (a very narrow letter) was afforded the same amount of space as the letter “m” (a wide letter). Imagine a “box” of the same size around every individual letter, be the letter large or small. Under such an arrangement, the gaps between sentences needed to be wider for the sake of clarity, so that the eye could perceive where a sentence ended. Now our technology accommodates different letter sizes — “to each according to her/his need.” It gives a smaller plot of ground to the “i,” and it gives a big chunk of real estate to “m,” and all the letters are happy, and the yards between sentences are very narrow.

So I changed my class handouts, and now I teach my students the New Arts, and they take notes and nod eagerly, because they still don’t learn formatting in high school.

So, yes, an old dog can learn new tricks. But it’s not only “getting-used-to” that’s the problem with that alternating “he” and “she.” What it leads to is subtle, perhaps even subconscious mind games. I give you my word that this is not my imagination. . . .

Where I used to see that technique of pronoun alternation a lot was in the writing magazines. (I don’t know if they’re still doing it; I haven’t read an issue in several years.) I think it’s fair to say that well more than half of the magazine industry nowadays is controlled by women. (Does anyone want to dispute that? Fire away if you do — I’m just going on what I observe.) Women are the editors, women are writing the articles. And what I promise you I was noticing was a subtle enacting of “revenge” against males for all those years of “he.” (I’m not saying all the articles did this, but enough did that I noticed the tendency.)

What I mean is this: when a female writer needed an unspecified-gender pronoun that she wanted to cast in a good, positive light, it came out “she.” When she needed a buffoon, it was a “he.” So there were sentences like this: “When a hard-working editor sits down at her desk and digs into her slush pile, she is not at all pleased to see a manuscript written by some writer who hasn’t checked his facts or his spelling.” Has the writer given equal time to “he” and “she”? Oh, yes, absolutely. Has she solved the long-standing problem of gender discrimination? Not at all.

There were some efforts toward coming up with an altogether new word, some singular pronoun that would refer to either a female or a male. I thought “oe” would be a nice possibility, since it doesn’t look like any other existing English word. This solution would be wonderful and complete if we could pull it off. But it hasn’t happened, because introducing a new word into a language generally only works when it describes a new concept or action, such as the Internet or Googling something. For an old concept such as “he or she,” our culture is much more ready to appropriate — even misuse — an existing word.

So we’ve got “they.” “Them.” “Their.” Like it or not, I think the dust has pretty much settled. The change is made. My friend Nick, a college professor, reports that students are almost universally using these plural forms in their papers to refer to singular subjects of unspecified gender. My own students now have electronic dictionaries that provide example sentences using these plurals in this way. I no longer correct these usages on their papers, but I continue to use “s/he” in my own writing. And I ain’t about to stop.  And I’m going to keep putting my apostrophe in “Hallowe’en.”

Fortunately, for me as a fiction writer, it’s not all that big a problem. Where one most often needs to use that structure is in writing non-fiction, so it’s a much bigger issue for friends like Nick.

Tim-in-Germany, I remember discussing this with you back in high school, and you argued then that this use of “they” isn’t a plural being used as a singular: it’s a separate word, a singular that just happens to have the same form as the plural. Well, that’s as good an explanation as any.

So there you have it: “they” and “they” were twins, separated at birth, and one “they” went missing and was presumed dead. Now, at the turn of the tide, that long-lost “they” has come back with a terrible pallor and a dark fire in their eyes, and they is riding on an apocalyptic horse.


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