Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I read with interest a recent review (from a New Yorker blog) of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible. In this new version, the translators and editors have tried to use gender-neutral language—for instance, replacing the word forefathers with the word ancestors.

And they've tried to tackle English's pronoun problem. Although it's a wordy language, English lacks one word that would be very useful: a gender-neutral single-person pronoun.

As our society has moved toward gender equality, we've found many ways to express those changes in our language. For instance, writers sensitive to the issue might use the word humanity instead of mankind. Or when a person's gender is unknown, we use mail carrier instead of mailman, businessperson instead of businessman, and police officer instead of policeman. Some language purists (and some sexists) mock a few of these new terms. Fisher (for fisherman) is a good example of a word that sounds, to many, farcically "politically correct"—even though it is, in fact, not a new word but an old word recently revived.

But we haven't found a new word to fill this gap: "Whenever you see a soldier, smile at _____."

If we were speaking casually, we might say say, "... them." That's how we get around having to say "him or her" and "he or she" every time this happens when we're talking. But many grammarians (and I) don't like using they this way in print. One reason is that they takes a plural verb, so antecedents get fuzzy—and this, in writing, makes for odd sentences: "When I see a soldier, I smile at them, and they smile back."

Many reputable usage guides—such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Usage, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage—recommend the "he or she" solution if you're unable to rewrite your way out of the problem.

But I find that, if I put some thought into it, I'm almost always able to rewrite my way to a gender-neutral solution that doesn't call too much attention to itself—and that's good, because "he or she" can seem clunky when it's repeated a lot (I decline to discuss "he/she").

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, "'[H]e or she' may be used as a last resort to avoid an unwanted assumption of maleness or femaleness in a general reference," adding, however, that "preferred solutions are those that spare the reader all traces of a writer's struggle." It suggests plural constructions ("A good soldier always does his duty," for example, may be changed to "Good soldiers always do their duty"). Alternatively, you might rewrite the sentence so that no pronoun is required. ("A good soldier always does what's required.")

The second example is an intrusive edit, and the first, too, changes meaning slightly (it may suggest more of "a singleness of mind in the group," according to A Dictionary of Modern Usage). In longer writing, when I have multiple gender-unknown single-person pronouns, I sometimes switch back and forth between male and female pronouns: "The hiring manager may think she's being helpful. ... And when you speak to the HR person, ask when you can expect to hear from him."

More from A Dictionary of Modern Usage: "The traditional view, now widely assailed as sexist, was that the masculine pronouns are generic, comprehending both male and female." Some wordsmiths do still see this as true, but "he or she" as a construction is not new; it appears in English as far back as the early 1800s.

So why bother with this? Well, there's the whole clarity-in-writing thing. Also, I think it's important for readers (and therefore for writers and the the publications or brands they represent) to see themselves in writing and the media. Inclusiveness is the right way to write.

Hungarian, just as a side note, is one of the languages that doesn't have this problem. It has one singular-person pronoun,
ő, which means both "he" and "she." If you're at all familiar with Hungarian, you know that its speakers have earned this small simplicity in their beautifully complicated language.

Part 2
In a new blog post on Queerty.com, I continue our conversation about pronouns.

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