Sunday, February 26, 2012

On the Blight that Is the Third-person Singular

i had no intention of posting on this. but i just read a funny post on another blog in which the writer [whose gender, praise god, is evident] took on the overuse of the word 'one' as an effort to avoid the universal 'he.' twice i tried to respond, each time coming against a different horror, specific to the web.  to get your response to a blog posted, you need to prove you are a living person by correctly  typing in a pair of highly mutilated non-words provided by the cyber gods.  each of my tries was rejected by sending me right back to the blog home page.  so this is dedicated to jim, b/c i think i can post on my own blog without having to  figure out that a pair of squiggles says 'flemtyr marzonchq'.

jim's irritation at the repetitions of 'one' is justified.  one doesn't want one's every third word to be 'one,' even if one is gratified that one doesn't have to deal with being 'included' in 'he' and 'him.'  but what, alas, is the solution?  'he and she', particularly when followed closely by 'his or her' destroys any possible grace the sentence may have had, while still being sexist.  'she or he' might be less sexist, or at least more female-friendly, but the aesthetic problem remains.  when desperate, i have used 's/he,' which i find better, but it sounds like a hiccup and doesn't solve the possessive problem at all--her or his?

but there is, and has been for lo these many years, a very easy substitute.  you can find it in shakespeare and jane austin and others over the years, before the rulebook emerged and squashed it forever.  you can find it in casual speech still, even when no one is trying not to sound sexist.

'they.'  what the hell is wrong with 'they'? good, brief word, that could function as the 2nd person pronoun has always comfortably functioned;  no one complains, at least in english-speaking countries, about the fact that 'you' doesn't identify gender or number, except in context.  once begun being used, it would become as common as most unfamiliar new words become, when they make sense.  the dictionary allows us all to get 'hung up,' where once it would appear only in dictionaries of black slang.  'shmuck,' having lost its original biological meaning, has long since left the jewish ghetto and is comfortably used by people of all backgrounds and genders.  women call each other 'dude' [though not with my approval].  word meanings grow, evolve, and sometimes change completely over years.  why can't we simply extend that perfectly inoffensive 'they' to take care of the 'sexist or graceless' problem once and for all?


Jim said...

Karen, I concur, on both "they/them" and the ridiculousness of Google's "CAPTCHA" algorithm (I will have to answer with "IForis oncywhii"...I get this posted).

When I wrote my post, as part of the research for it I did find that at least some editors/style guides dislike "they/them" for singular third person usage, and that's probably why in more formal academic texts they are frowned upon and "one" ends up overused. But as you say, that's just the "rulebook," and English changes, which is one of the things I love about it (similar to "dudes," "guys" has been seen as fairly gender-neutral for quite some time now, as in "Hey, you guys want to go get something to eat?)

Thanks for the reply!

Bob Lamm said...

I do not agree that "guys" is "fairly gender-neutral." Only in a sexist world. And, yes, some women may use the word "guys" to refer to both women and men or even just to refer to women. All that shows is that in a sexist society both women and men are socialized into being comfortable with sexist language.

karen lindsey said...

i've always been a bit uncomfortable with 'guys,' though at first it did seem to be appropriating male language. but it's funny that these things don't seem to happen with language originally about women. unless you're being deliberately insulting, you don't say 'hey gals' to men or mixed groups. i think 'guys' has gone maybe to the midway point in changing its meaning, but as long as it retains its exclusive male connotations at all, it's a bit related to the 'universal , 'man.'