Monday, October 10, 2005

Gender ambiguity

The political correctness movement has instigated many changes---not always good ones---in the English language. One problem that has yet to be resolved satisfactorily, however, is the unavoidability of specifying gender when it is unnecessary or even inappropriate. An example is the following: what possessive adjective goes with the gender-neutral pronoun "someone"?

I once had a writing teacher at Harvard who insisted that we use "their," despite that being grammatically incorrect; for that feminist, apparently the lack of numerical agreement was less of a sin than making assumptions about the sex of the subject. Now, I consider myself quite a feminist as well---I despise the title "Mrs.", and I've certainly fought my share of battles proving that women can do math and science---but I am also a grammarian, and this just bugs me. By this logic, would one also have to say, "Someone didn't clean up after themself?" How can multiple people have one self? Or do you say "Someone didn't clean up after themselves?" Now one person has multiple selves. Either way, it's inconsistent and grating.

Another phenomenon I've seen is the invention of unisex adjectives like "hir." Perhaps if it gained wider usage it might look less ridiculous, but I don't see that happening. In the meantime, it sticks out even worse than the gramatically incorrect "their."

My practice is to use the somewhat cumbersome "his or her" when it doesn't over-complicate the sentence, and when it does, to pick one gender and use it. It doesn't always have to be the male "his" or "himself", and in fact it's nice to reverse the expected choice once in a while and use "her" for a doctor or boss. I've read books and articles on parenting where the assumed gender of the child is changed every paragraph or section, and as long as it is done in a way that doesn't disturb the continuity of the prose, it's great.

How about other languages? It's interesting to me that Spanish has the gender-inspecific possessive adjective su, although the vocabulary in general makes many more distinctions by gender; a doctor is a médico or médica, for example. Mandarin Chinese has the convenient pronoun , which can mean "he" or "she". And then there is Hebrew, which has the gender of the speaker built into the conjugation of the verb itself so you can't possibly escape it.

The constructors of Esperanto were apparently conscious of this issue too, as they recommend ĝi ("it") as a gender-inspecific pronoun. This could be a neat solution for the problem in English, except that some people seem to have an aversion to sharing a pronoun with inanimate objects. In fact, English speakers of Esperanto have proposed a pronoun ri that is separate from li ("he") and ŝi ("she") reserved for humans. This seems like an unnecessarily complicated solution to me, but as I've already expressed lack of interest in learning Esperanto (see this previous post), I'll refrain from further comment.


Doug said...

I've wrestled with the same question and am close to settling on "their" as the preferred pronoun. "His or her" is too unwieldy, and a solution like alternating gender in references to the same antecendent is distracting at best and could be confusing.

We already have the number-inspecific pronoun "you" as a precendent. (Of course some Northerner's modify the plural by adding "guys", most Southerners have "y'all", which can be singular, and many say "you all" thinking they are talking Southern.)

"Someone" is an indefinite person and as such can refer to any of a number different people, so why not assign the same indefinite-ness to "their." Though it may be technically ungrammatical, it is well understood and shouldn't that be the test?

Doug said...

Or, to put it another way -

When gender is not identified, the same is often true of number.

In the example "Someone didn't clean up after themselves?", not only do we not know someone's gender, we don't know how many someones there were. I see nothing wrong with allowing "themselves" the same freedom?

Doug said...

"...freedom." not "...freedom?"

Language Lover said...

Well, first, I'm a huge opponent of the "you understand what I mean so that's good enough" argument, which is used to justify all kinds of spelling and usage errors. I think "his or her" is manageable if it occurs only once. If switching gender is confusing, then I say pick one and stick with it; personally I don't mind using the male "his" in general, although I do appreciate it when writers pick "her" in a case when it might not be expected. (That's how we break stereotypes, by challenging them gently and frequently.)

I suppose a case could be made that "someone" is ambiguous in number, but I could construct a case where assuming a plural would sound ridiculous. And I'm not sure what you mean by "you" as a precedent (precedent for what?)...did you perhaps mean "alternative"? That's certainly one way to get around the problem, when it is appropriate.

Really, the English language just has no good solution, which is why we have these arguments at all. :) Maybe in time, if enough people decide that "their" is okay, it will stop sounding weird and people like me will have to admit defeat.

Doug said...

I agree, "you understand what I mean," is never enough on it's own, but I submit it is the most important consideration and things that distract from it are to be avoided. In fact, spelling and usage errors can distract as much as unwieldy or uncustomary constructions. I suppose using "their" as singular could fall into that category for many people, though it seems most are not bothered by it. That's a big part of the reason it's been a wrestling match for me.

As for "his or her", my generation's teachers deducted points for that, and we are not likely to become comfortable with it. But they also taught us to use the male for any indeterminate situation and that's just boring. Switching from time to time not only helps break stereotypes, it also adds variety and freshness. In the parenting book example, using different sexes in different examples is certainly good, though changing in mid-example while referring to the same child, which I may have misunderstood you to mean, would be a distraction.

In advocating the use of "their" and "them" to mean either plural or singular, I was just pointing out that a precedent for that approach is the word "you", which can be either, though my parenthetical remark amounts to an admission that many people do, in fact, feel a need to qualify the plural.

Like many a multiple choice test, English doesn't provide a right answer but challenges us to figure out what is the best one. Vive l'argument!

Doug said...

Just found several references to this at Languagelog. This is the most interesting.