Grammatical Investigations: she, he, ze, and they
Last week I wrote about Jamie Kirchick’s latest excursion into truthiness for The New Republic‘s blogs; the comments seem to have lit out on an interesting tangent about language, grammar, and gender-neutral third-person pronouns. It’s all Anon73’s fault:
Continuing the pronoun pondering, I don't really agree with the method of alternatingheandsheto make language gender-neutral; it provokes too much confusion when one actually does want to specify a person's gender. I think the best method is to switch to new pronouns likezeand use he/she when gender matters to a discussion. But then I favor talking about kibibytes and mebibytes, so what do I know....
I don’t actually alternate pronouns very often; with a very few exceptions, I just always useshein preference toheas a gender-indefinite pronoun. But in any case I don’t see either practice as posing much of a stylistic problem when you do want to specify gender: you just do that in the antecedent, rather than in the pronoun. In a language that had no gendered pronouns, that’s what you’d have to do anyway.
Anyone who likes words likeze,hir,ey,xe,thon,etc. should feel free to use them as widely as they can; I’m certainly not going to begrudge them the minimal effort it takes on my part to pick up on new monosyllables. But I generally don’t like them, stylistically speaking, because they usually don’t sound much like English–they don’t fit very well into the phonetic structure of either formal English or dialect. (For example, how ishireven supposed to be pronounced by an English speaker?)
The one big exception to that is the singularthey,which comes out of living speech and which flourishes in most dialects because in most of the constructions you might use it in, it sounds pretty natural. But it often gets frowned on and doesn’t have much uptake by self-conscious language reformers, because the kind of people who would actually use a word likezein writing or speech also tend to be the kind of people who would feel awkward about using anincorrectsingularthey.
Ifyogets some uptake, that would sound fairly natural, too, and would sidestep whatever uneasiness people may feel about the singularthey.
Laura J., who knows more about language than I could ever hope to, and perhaps more than an entirely sane human being should, adds:
Yo? How curious. I don't think I could easily get used to it – it simultaneously sounds too much like Englishyouand Romance first-person pronouns for my tastes. But then, I don't have a grammatical gap to fill there since I routinely usetheyas a singular pronoun when there isn't one specific gendered person being referred to.
Shakespeare occasionally usestheyas a singular pronoun, as I recall.
Me again, stirring up some controversy:
As do Jane Austen and the King James Version of the Bible. (Cf. 1 for still more examples.) But of course discomfort with the singulartheyhas more or less nothing to do with the norms underlying actually-existing good English, either written or spoken, and everything to do with a fetishized ideal of how alogicallanguage should work, or, more concretely, with participating in a particular culture of correction and officious priggishness, which institutional schooling browbeats most educated professionals into accepting.
Anon72 (not to be confused with Anon73, unless they’re actually the same person–I don’t know one way or the other) joins in to reply
Well I think clarity and consistency are always good things to strive for in a language; I just don't see the singulartheyas satisfying either.
This is pretty much always the first line of defense when challenging an
incorrect bit of dialectical grammar. But I don’t buy it; clarity and consistency are certainly things to be desired, but this seems like special pleading. I reply:
I agree with the principle, but not with the application of it.
Can you think of any actual cases in your life where somebody used the singulartheyand you couldn’t understand what they were saying because of it?
If so, what was the case? If not, then it seems like your worry aboutclarityis misplaced.
As forconsistency,is it a violation of consistency for English to have a single word,you,for the second-person singular and the second-person plural? If not, how is that different from having a singularthey? If so, does it rub you the wrong way when someone usesyouin the plural (or singular) just as much as when they usetheyin the singular? If it does, do you fix the problem by introducing dialectical constructions likey’alloryouseoryunsin formal contexts? If it doesn’t, what do you suppose accounts for the difference in your reaction?
Anon72 answers one of my questions:
As for consistency, is it a violation of consistency for English to have a single word, you, for the second-person singular and the second-person plural?
Yes. I don't likey'all, but it would be nice if the language had separate words for the singular and plural forms. If you want to know my philosophy on language, I think Heinlein was right when he said words should mirror the way we think about reality. Addressing a single person is very different from addressing a crowd, so it's logical to have different words for each. I'd say similar considerations apply to neutral pronouns; sometimes people want to refer to someone of certain but unknown gender, and he/she/it doesn't cut it. However, I don't necessarily agree with Hofstadter that sexism is partly due to gendered pronouns.
Incidentally I was reading an old grammar guide (circa 1961) and when listing the different genders it said something to the effect ofhe, she, and it are for male living things, female living things, and non-living things (neuter) respectively. It's interesting how the original english speakers decided a fourth category of living-but-necessarily-gendered was unimportant.
But I’m not especially convinced.
I agree that a proper language needs separate words for addressing a single person and addressing a group of people. But I think that privileged English already has two different words for those two different purposes, even without dialectical constructs like the ones I mentioned. Those two words are
Those are, to be sure, two words that can’t be distinguished by sound or spelling, but rather are distinguished by the context of their significant use (as expressed in word order, sentence structure, etc.). There are lots of pairs of words like that, sometimes with very different or even opposite meanings —
approval or endorsement, for example — but in real, everyday language, context is often quite enough to distinguish those words from one another. To take another case, suppose that everyone suddenly stopped spelling
they’re differently in writing, and just used a single spelling for all three words,
their. (Lots of people already do this unless a teacher raps them on the knuckles for it.) Would that impair your ability to distinguish the words from each other? Really? Does the fact that they all sound exactly alike impair your ability to distinguish them in speech?
Now, if someone’s depending on context rather than phonetic or graphical features to differentiate different words, then, to be sure, they have to consider how clearly context distinguishes and how often it leaves things ambiguous. In the case of
you, it turns out there are enough cases with a significant risk of confusion that dialects have repeatedly, spontaneously with alternative second-person plural pronouns to solve the problem. But in the case of
they, the situation is quite the reverse: the spontaneous and repeated trend, even among masterful and careful writers of good English — Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen, the King James Version translators, et al. — has been to spontaneously use the singular
they in order to get an epicene pronoun, where the privileged version of the language doesn’t provide it. I think that the dialectical situation is different here because, as a matter of actual fact, the rules for using singular
they (which, grammatically, isn’t actually a perfect substitute for
he or she; it only works in a subset of cases where
he or she works) are such that there’s hardly ever any chance of confusion, given the context of the sentence.
Which brings me back to a couple of my earlier question, which I really would be interested to hear Anon72’s answers to:
Can you think of any actual cases in your life where somebody used the singular “they” and you couldn't understand what they were saying because of it?
If so, does it rub you the wrong way when someone usesyouin the plural (or singular) just as much as when they usetheyin the singular? … If it doesn’t, what do you suppose accounts for the difference in your reaction?
Incidentally, I should add that I think that
y’all is lovely English and I would have no problem introducing it (or
you all or whatever) into the context of formal writing, which would (among other things) have the benefit of avoiding certain kinds of ambiguity. There are lots of cases where I prefer an academic
she to a singular
they, too, but honestly I think any charges of either unclarity or inconsistency against
they are surely trumped up, and probably a reflection of just that fetishized ideal of how
logical languages are supposed to look (as if the logic were in the signs themselves rather than in their significant use) that I complained about earlier.