Posted at 11:00 AM Jul 31, 2009
If you hated English class, be warned 'cuz we're 'bout to get all linguistic up in here. I'm a bit too self-conscious (and forgetful) to be a grammar snob, but as an aspiring editor, I do enjoy a good debate over the acceptability of dangling participles, the use of serial commas, the use of "since" as a word indicating either chronology or causality, and other lexical and grammatical tiffs that many people would rather chew slowly through their own wrist than engage in.
Another such debate involves proper noun/pronoun/verb agreement. And this week, Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman with New York Times magazine highlight a specific subset of the discussion: the quest for a universal, non-sexist personal pronoun. Apparently folks on Twitter are all abuzz about it, but this is the first I've heard.
The need for a unisex pronoun might not seem necessary. Often, you can get away with making the subject of a sentence plural, or (like this sentence) switching over to second person. Certain phrases, though, such as "To each his own," can't really be said without either a masculine bias or the clunky use of "his or her." "His" could be replaced with "one's," I suppose, but only if you want to sound like a Brit. So, people say, "screw it," and use "they" as a singular pronoun.
The writers of the NYT piece trace the use of "he" for both sexes to one of the first books on English grammar, written in 1745, by Anne Fisher, a woman no less. What's interesting is that Fisher seemed, by all accounts, to be a pretty empowered lady. She ran her own school, printing press, and newspaper. Maybe using "he" never bothered her. Maybe she thought it sounded better. O'Connor and Keller write:
"But alas, in swapping he for they, Fisher replaced a number problem with a gender problem."Even though, as the writers point out, lots of authors ("Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope ... ") have always used "they" as a singular. Personally, I'm torn on this issue, mostly because I've spent my adult life removing "they" as my go-to singular, sexless pronoun, but at the same time using his/her or s/he calls a hell of a lot of attention to the gendered pronoun issue I'm trying to evade.
So, what do you think, dolls? Yay to "they" in the singular, or nay?