Sunday, February 17, 2008

English has a problem

There's a shortcoming of the English language in the modern age: it's hard to be gender neutral.

English's 3rd person, for some reason, makes a distinction between male and female. You would think in today's society that a person's gender, much like a person's race or religion, should be left out of conversation unless somehow relevant.

"The VP was emphatic during (his/her) presentation that..."

Yes, it's not necessary to point out a particular person's gender when you're talking about them, especially in their capacity (e.g., a VP), but at least a specific person has a specific gender. But what about an unspecified person?

If you've ever watched a propaganda film from the 40's-50's you know what I mean. The film usually centers around an unspecified individual, yet typically assigns a male gender.

"The voter casts his vote...."

Today it's considered an exclusionary practice to speak like that since it may give the (incorrect) impression that the narrator believes women do not vote. It would be much easier if their was a gender-neutral 3rd person singular possessive. Here are two (grammatically incorrect) alternatives:

"The voter casts their vote..."
"The voter casts its vote..."

Personally, I like the first one. Yes, it's grammatically incorrect, but solves the problem. One other grammatically correct but sometimes awkward solution is to pluralize to take advantage of the neutral 3rd plural possessive:

"The voters cast their votes..."

So why am I telling you this? Well recently, through the course of reading and writing academic publications, I've been encountering a new writing trend: some writers are getting around the problem by using 3rd person female.

"The voter casts her vote..."

Their justification is simple; it's cleaner to write in 3rd person singular, and if you have to pick genders, it's more acceptable to pick female than male.

This introduces a dilemma. Which is more important:
  • clean grammar with a definitive (but 'polite') gender bias,
  • less clean (or versatile) grammar with no gender bias?
I prefer the latter. To me gender fairness is more important than readability. But that's just one person's opinion. It would be so much easier if some conservatory in England would just "proclaim" a new gender neutral singular 3rd person possessive. Frankly I don't see why that cannot be done. There's obviously a need for such a word. It exists in (certain) other languages.

I invite the reader to contribute her opinion :-)

Update: See "singular they"


Megan said...

You can usually get around it by rewriting the sentence to use the plural. In bulleted lists that have to be singular, I go back and forth between "his" and "her".

I am 100% opposed to "The voter casts their vote" and so on.

Aleks said...

As a self-described grammar enthusiast being opposed to "their" is understandable. Proper grammar is something to aspire to. Goodness knows I was never formally taught it in high school, and have much room for improvement.

But it raises a good point: who controls language? The very fact we are writing on a "blog" (a word created one day by some guy that simply caught on) does suggest that we do, as individuals, have some linguistic license.

In this case, we need a genderless equivalent of "his/her." As is the case in other circumstances, if the word doesn't exist it can be created. This year "ginormous" made it to Merriam Webster.

Then it comes down to a question of prevalance. Many high schoolers arrive at the usage of "their" as a singular genderless solution-word all of their own. It just so happens that the behavior is 'corrected' before it can become established.

In the end, one can write however they wish. The question is only, 'will it be understandable?' Everything else is a question of aesthetics and fashion.

c'est moi said...

Traditionally the masculine was employed because the audience was assumed to be male.

Contemporaries use the feminine for a variety of reasons; one of which is to balance a thousand years of the masculine as a default.

Personally, I find that language is a living thing. Let us consider language that is vulgar. There was a time when the OED did not include it because it was felt beneath a scholarly endeavour. Now one can look up fuck in the OED and be presented with the array of its usage in the modern vernacular. I have seen condensed forms developed in modern culture as a response to texting for dollars (bff, as an example) make the leap from teen cell phones to television commercials. Who doesn’t know what LOL or its dozen spin offs mean as a result of email? My point is this, use what you want. What does it matter in our modern age. If you are submitting for publication or for a grade, it sounds like you are already on top of the grammar. If it is for anything else, well fuck it! LOL  Our language is malleable and, if it were not, we’d all be walking around parroting Shakespeare, Chaucer, or whoever wrote Beowulf.

c'est moi said...

damn. aleks your reply to the first argument was up, to further elucidate your point as a response to megan, when I published my reponse to the post.

i personally don't see grammar as a big problem for native speakers. i find that it really only concerns linguists and second language teachers. the rest of the population just does what they feel "sounds" correct.

Aleks said...

Well to tell the truth, this whole "he/she/they" discussion was prompted by an paper I was co-authoring recently.

The other authors were using the 'she/her' style, and, well, I guess I just needed some perspective by "putting it out there" and getting some other opinions.

Re: "balance a 1000 years of masculine", I note that Wikipedia indicates the usage of gender-neutral pronouns in middle-english
Let's settle for 500 years of bias:-)

As a related note, in the study of cryptography, its the PRESENCE of bias in a system (and not the direction) that is the only relevant (negative) feature.

Megan said...

Grammar enthusiast. I like that.

Zachariah Wells said...

Hi. While the singular "they" appals and offends many language mavens, who will insist it is incorrect, its use has in fact been widespread for ages. Calling it "incorrect" is prescriptivist dogma. See:

That said, there are many instances in which the use of "they" or "their" just sounds terrible. Another option, if you're writing more than a single sentence or small paragraph, is to alternate the use of male and female pronouns. As long as this isn't done in such a way that it implies positive attributes to one and negative to the other, it's perfectly neutral and should offend no one, politically or aesthetically.

It is very rare that an intentional coinage makes its way into language. As others have said here, language has a life of its own and there's no way to predict what new words will take and which won't stick. So imposing a solution from on high isn't likely to be effective.

There are interesting insights into these and other quirks of language in Steven Pinker's book _The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature_. Highly recommended.

Aleks said...

It's all about the singular they!! :-)

Interesting that you should mention Pinker. I had someone over last night raving about the same book! Maybe I *should* check it out.

As for alternation (he and she), I'm don't dig it because,

1) it's more complicated: you have to keep track of what the next pronoun should be.
2) It's only halfway to a solution... a sort of language bandaid... so why not just go the full distance and pioneer a new pronoun?

Female Nerd said...

Pronouns cause different kinds of trouble in different languages...

In Danish, "hans"(=his) and "hendes"(=hers) is only used when the person referred to is not the subject of the sentence. If the person referred to is the subject of the sentence, the gender-neutral "sin"(=his/hers) is used instead.

So in Danish, it is actually in much fewer cases that one has to consider the gender of the person being referred to. However, the above mentioned rule is one of the most difficult things for foreigners (and even native Danish speakers) to learn.

Say if you wanted to translate the sentence "He took his hat and left" into Danish, you would have to consider whether he took his OWN hat (in this case "his" refers to "he" that is the subject of the sentence) or SOME OTHER GUYS hat because this would determine whether to translate "his" into "sin" or "hans".

Anyway, I think you should not underestimate that during the evolution of the English language (and most other languages as well), determining the gender of a person has been one of the most crucial factors in interacting with a person because this would determine the nature of your interaction. It is not until very recently that we (for the most part) would like to interact with people in a gender neutral way and our languages have simply not evolved quickly enough.

Personally, I always get jitters when I see a lot of effort being put into abiding to the political correctness, but I see your point.

Aleks said...


Well there is a PC dimension to it, but it's just as much about being having an avenue to be able to just say what you mean.

Using male/female pronouns in this context is kind of like saying "Empire Strikes Back" or "Return of the Jedi" when you're JUST TRYING to refer to the Star Wars trilogy in general.

Recall this thread was originally started in the context of academic publications. In these venues, the reviewers typically will bust you over any imprecision in your language.

Since he/she is only an approximation of the intended (general) meaning, you think it too would be subject to criticism.