Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Gender, No Sex

Rather than offering a broad scope of philosophy or literature, this time I want to get down to a small but personal irritant in the English language. In its development English has overcome most of the strictures of gender and number of nouns and pronouns in the language. The most glaring anomaly is the third person singular when gender is not neuter but unknown. Even the present tense verb form changes for the third person singular.

We say that I, you (both singular and plural), and they make but he, she, or it makes. The question raises its head when we refer to a person but not his (or her) sex. See how awkward this gets?

When I was learning the English language (for it's not my mother tongue) I was blithely taught that the masculine "he (or him, his)" when used in this way presumed the inclusion of the feminine "she (or her, hers)." And that explanation of inclusiveness satisfied me for a long time. But a decade or two later the feminist social movement raised a fuss about such language, not only about the third person singular but also about non-gender specific nouns automatically being assigned the masculine singular pronoun. First they did away with suffix identifiers such as -ess, etc. There are no more actresses; they are all actors. Even God in her wisdom will take on the feminine form.

Sometimes it becomes silly and goes overboard, e. g. the use of the term "herstory" when the original "his" doesn't have any connection with gender. Or when a "manhole" becomes a "personhole." You may notice that this is never applied to already derogatory terms; you won't find anyone referred to as a "womaniac" or "personiac" no matter what the sex of the individual.

But back to the gender of person. What do you say when you don't know the gender of the person referred to? "Whatever the doctor tells you, do what he/she says." To go back to the time I was taught English, we were also told that the pronoun form "they, them, theirs" is plural and not to be used for the singular. Then the teachers threw in exceptions: you may use it in the case of singular collective nouns such as "the crowd raise their voices" or "my family always take their vacation." (Note that the verb form also becomes plural.)

I read in a neat little book that the third person plural had been used to fill this gap for a long time, by such people as Shakespeare, the authors of the King James Bible, Jane Austen and others until the latter part of the nineteenth century when there was a concerted effort to regulate the language, an effort that led to the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition and other awkwardnesses. But English with its very adaptable nature will not be regulated.

Therefore, I will end a sentence with a preposition if I need to. I intend to use "they" for the third person singular pronoun if gender is unspecified. But I'll listen to any person who thinks they can find a better way.
Sometimes you can teach this old dog a new trick.

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