Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Grammar Moment: Non-Sexist Pronoun Reference

How to be grammatically correct without being politically incorrect

It occurs to me that it has been a very long time since I last posted a Grammar Moment, and that kind of lapse is unconscionable in someone who has officially been named a Grammar Goddess. So, in spite of the calling of NaNo, I must put up a grammar post, however brief.

First, a quick bit of background: Pronouns must match (agree with) the words they refer to. If the word referred to (technically known as an antecedent, but I’m not going to quiz you on the technical terms) is singular, the pronoun is singular. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun is plural.

The pronoun they, and its relatives them and their, are plural. Thus they cannot be used to refer to a singular noun. Thus, the following sentence is an atrocity:

A student should keep their backpack neat.

You simply must not use the plural their to refer to the singular student. Back in the old days, the solution was simple. In all cases, the masculine singular was used whenever the gender of the student was unknown:

A student should keep his backpack neat.

Nice and tidy, until somewhere around 1970, s0mebody noticed that about half of the human race was not male. Some options were attempted, such as the following:

A student should keep his/her backpack neat.

Well, it sort of works, but it’s awkward, especially if you read it aloud. My husband, a technical writer who works with engineers, who like efficiency and use that slash construction a lot, invented his own all-purpose pronoun to make fun of slash-itis: s/he/it. If you want to know how it’s pronounced … well, he’s from Texas.

For a more pronounceable, if wordier, option, there’s this one:

A student should keep his or her backpack neat.

This is quite reasonable. I use it often myself, in shorter pieces of writing. But if you have a longer piece, that extra verbiage can get burdensome. So what to do? The key is that it is a longer piece – you give both genders equal time. In one paragraph, you use his, and then in the next, you use her. Or you flip a coin for each paragraph. Or you can use what a teacher of mine once called the “subtle feminist agenda”: Use the feminine when the connotation is positive, and the masculine when the connotation is negative:

A good driver keeps her car well tuned. A bad driver slacks on his maintenance.

Of course, there is also another way to avoid having the plural they trying to be a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and that’s by not asking it to try to be singular in the first place. Rewrite the sentence so that what the they refers to is actually plural:

Students should keep their backpacks neat.

Wow! Miracle of miracles, now you don’t have to worry about whether the students are male or female. They can be either, or both, and you’re not violating any rules of grammar or of political correctness.  Sure, once in a while, you’re going to have a situation in which you have to have the singular, but in the vast majority of cases, you should easily be able to rewrite everything to plural. Gee, isn’t that simple?


Blogger Tillerman said...

Do you think it's OK to tell you readers at the start of the piece that every time you use the masculine pronoun you are including the feminine implicitly?

Or is that feministically incorrect?

Fri Nov 11, 02:02:00 PM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Having such a disclaimer at the beginning would slightly lessen the presumption of bias, but it would establish you as being hopelessly mired in the past.

It's better to stay plural as much as possible, and alternate genders when you have to be singular.

Fri Nov 11, 10:03:00 PM MST  
Anonymous Jerry said...

English is supposed to be a fluid and adaptable tongue, so let's just make up a new pronoun. Off the top of my head...

his her hos
he she hoo

you could have a poll with a few options for gender-neutral personal pronouns, and we'll make it happen!

Sat Nov 12, 07:20:00 AM MST  
Anonymous jesse said...


Mon Nov 14, 11:53:00 AM MST  
Anonymous jesse said...

aha. If I use a different computer I can comment. strange.

I'm glad you had a grammar episode, because I have a new question for you: yesterday on TV, this guy said he was going to disappear a submarine. Now I know the mafia and the CIA like to "disappear" people or things, but really, I grew up hearing the verb disappear as as a self inflicted verb, i.e. the submarine could disappear on its own, but we couldn't disappear it itself. So....
1.) is there a name or class of verbs that you can do to yourself (I am Zoltan the Great, I will disappear!), but you can't do unto others (I am Zeebar the Lesser, I will disappear you!)?
2.) is point one no longer true - are all verbs open to the new flexibility? Is it acceptable to hardcore grammarians to say I will disapper them?

Mon Nov 14, 12:00:00 PM MST  
Blogger Pat said...

Carol Anne,
Looks like it's time for a review of intransitive versus transitive verbs. "Disappear" is supposed to be intransitive, meaning that it doesn't want or need a direct object in order to be part of a complete statement or action. Intransitive verbs cannot be used to make passive verb forms. So, no-go for "He was disappeared."

But how did we get this bunch of intransigent intransitives? Can common (mis-)usage change the accepted meaning of a verb so that it eventually loses its intransitive character?

Mon Nov 14, 12:46:00 PM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Oh, yes, the English language does change and flow. The beauty of it is that it is not set in stone. Changes in usage can and do occur and are not, per se, barbaric.

That said, we must also balance change with consistency and logic. There is, for instance, no reason for usage to convert an intransitive verb to a transitive verb if there already exists a transitive verb that will do the trick.

In the case of "to disappear (something or someone)" as a transitive verb, we have a borderline case. Yes, there is an existing construction, "to cause to vanish," but that's wordy. My guess is that gradually, the usage of "disappear" as a transitive verb will increase. It's not really acceptable in formal English now, but it could well be in a few years.

Tue Nov 15, 01:37:00 AM MST  

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