No One is Interested in This But Me

October 27, 2008 at 10:53 pm Leave a comment

The word “they” should function as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.

There. I said it.

In the English language, there seems to be a lot of confusion over how to refer to singular entities when the gender is unknown. For an example, let’s imagine a contract that can be signed by men or women. It could use the pronoun “he” regardless of gender (“he who signs this agrees…”). It could use an awkward construction like “he/she”, which sounds terrible when spoken aloud. Or it might use one of the many artificial and downright ugly constructions that have sprung up over the years as a potential solution, such as “hir”, “xe”, or “squir” (I shit you not, these all actually exist).

All these ways of referring to an unknown gender are either implicitly sexist or unbearably awkward. What’s needed is a gender-neutral term that’s already in common usage and can pull double-duty as a singular pronoun.

And we have that word. “They”.

Now, the problem here is that “they” already functions in the plural sense, and so could result in confusion. However, this isn’t a serious concern if you think about it; we already use the word “you” to mean both “you (singular)” and “you (plural)”, and nobody has any trouble with that.

More importantly, “they” is already in usage in this sense, and has been since the 15th century. It’s already an accepted variant, though it sometimes doesn’t receive much use. However, some grammarians reject it because of the difficultly in contrasting it against plurals. Here’s an example I just found:

“The person saw a creature creeping towards them from out of the forest. Its eyes had a gleam in them that made them think of all the fierceness of a lion.”

In the second sentence, it’s unclear except from context what each “them” refers to. In an extended passage this confusion would be compounded and potentially render the work unreadable (again, I’ve seen examples). This is a legitimate concern, I admit. However, it seems to me that the clarity you gain from not arbitrarily assigning a gender balances out against the diffusion of meaning (again, context helps significantly in this case).

Why is having a singular gender-neutral pronoun so important? Because the most commonly used alternative, simply using “he” to denote both genders, is both confusing and sexist and leads to all kinds of confusion. Take, for example, the extremely gendered “He” used to refer to god; as a matter of logic an omnipotent, bodyless being would not be gendered, but this use of the singular pronoun allows people to refer to a god as a man, usher in all sorts of talk about “the father”, and elevate men to a higher level of importance than women.

Not to mention how insulting it must be to read over something that repeatedly refers to you as the wrong gender (for example, a contract that keeps using the pronoun “he”).

Though it doesn’t cover all the bases linguistically, ‘they’ does fill a nice gap and should be used in discourse as a way of avoiding weird constructions and incorrect gender-attribution. People should use it more often.

Like most of the things I worry about, there’s a relevant Dinosaur Comic to this, but I can’t find it.

*****

For the record, most of my problem with artificial constructions like ‘xe’ is that they are cumbersome and seem to have little basis in the English Language (their letter structure and pronounciation just doesn’t mesh with other common English words). Additionally, their very nature as artificial constructions rather than naturally arising words makes them unlikely to catch on. They strike me as an impractical solution to a practical problem, though I will admit that they can have a legitimate use in some circumstances.

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