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HE, SHE, HIM, HER, THEY, THEM

UNLIKE MANY OF the world’s languages, English is relatively gender-independent. We don’t have the lady table, la table, at the gentleman cafe, le café. True, we have he/she and him/her for personal pronouns, but even the plurals they/them are independent of gender.

There was a time when some women, with good reason,  objected to Miss and Mrs. as giving more information than they wished to share. After all, is Mr. Smith married? Is Mr. Jones single? Hence the marital-neutral Ms. 

Today, English-speaking societies are in the midst of another transition: Shouldn’t personal pronouns be gender-neutral as well? This is addressed by Molly Lipson in “How Language Classes Are Moving Past the Gender Binary,” The New York Times, September 1, 2021. 

A gender normative Hebrew lesson. This and the following image by Emily MacInnes for The New York Times.

For those who are perhaps less au courant, the term “gender binary” identifies the traditional two-state either-or for male or female. But what about people who are transgender? Or those who prefer to be non-binary? He/she may not apply; indeed, the ordering of he/she as opposed to she/he may seem contentious to some. 

A Word Workaround. Lipson writes, “As societies that speak gendered languages have become more open to nonconforming identities, native speakers have crafted mechanisms for removing or avoiding the gendered element of words.”

As an example, Lipson offers, “Despite some claims to the contrary, it is grammatically correct to use ‘they’and ‘them’ in English to refer to the third-person singular. We do this when the person’s gender is unknown. On the road, for example, we might say of a driver: ‘That person just ran a stop sign. I don’t know what they think they’re doing.’ ”

Unfortunately, Lipson doesn’t address whether one should write “I don’t know what they thinks they’re doing.” There is only one driver, after all.

Historical Examples. Lipson says,  “ ‘They’ has been used in this way for hundreds of years. It first appeared in the 1370s in ‘William and the Werewolf instead of using ‘he’ to refer to ‘each man.’ Shakespeare employed it frequently in much the same way: ‘There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/ As if I were their well-acquainted friend,’ he wrote in The Comedy of Errors. Jane Austen used it, too: ‘It had been a miserable party, each of the three believing themselves most miserable,’ she wrote in Mansfield Park.”

Current, If Avant-Garde Usage. The latest usage proposes replacing “she” or “he” with the gender-neutral “they.” For instance, rewrite Lipson’s paragraph above to read “Shakespeare employed it… when they wrote in The Comedy of Errors.” And “Jane Austen used it too… when they wrote …” 

Language Luddite that I am, I find this usage difficult to adopt: “Lipson amplified when they appealed to history,” when what I mean it’s Lipson doing the appealing.  

Needed: A New Word. Perhaps more unorthodox, but somehow less jarring is the Ms. model. That is, invent an entirely new word to represent a gender-neutral third-person singular. 

Lipson uses a one new to me in quoting Louis Moffa, a non-binary teaching fellow in the Department of Italian at Columbia: “Mx. Moffa said,” with a gender-neutral replacement for Mr./Miss/Mrs./Ms.

Points off for they (Lipson) not saying they (Moffa) said. (If you get the drift of my meaning.) ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

One comment on “HE, SHE, HIM, HER, THEY, THEM

  1. georgewandsympaticoca
    September 18, 2021

    Dennis, you may get a chuckle from this story about the word “UP” at https://www.usingenglish.com/forum/threads/88743-Using-the-word-quot-UP-quot

    Enjoying your stories now and ever since you wrote in R&T

    George Wand
    george.wand@sympatico.ca

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