An Argument for Them
Typically linguists are not supposed to pass judgement on the acceptability of linguistic forms, instead distancing themselves from all notions of prescriptivism. In practice, this is of course not true, particularly in the realm of their native language. Often, this is compounded by notions of 'grammatical' and, more recently, political correctness learned, paradoxically, from others against their will.
I would like to give a number of arguments against some solutions that have been offered to solve the problem of using singular pronouns, which necessarily indicate gender in Standard English, when referring to an unidentified or unspecified person. I would also like to give arguments for using they, them and related forms in this capacity.
The 'grammatical' solution, force fed to us by our English teachers, is one. This sounds horribly stilted and unnatural even in writing; in casual speech it is even more so, making one sound like one has a stick up one's butt.
Various politically correct alternatives have been offered:
- she, which, unfortunately, is rather jarring to the reader, and detracts from the content of what she reads by sticking out so.
- he or she, which has only limited usefulness because it becomes unwieldy with repeat usage, such as He or she should take her or his foot out of her or his mouth as soon as he or she finds herself or himself able. I recommend, for the more p.c. out there, that you alphabetize these phrases when you do use them, else the feminine seems like a tackily tacked on after-thought.
- s/he while compact, does not generalize well to other cases: as her/his is really no better than the last option. Also, s/he is totally unpronouncable by any except, perhaps, those who have become zen masters of p.c.
They and related forms have the following benefits:
- These forms already exist in all dialects of English, and are in fact used by some dialects in the exact way desired. In my own East Texas/Southern dialect, third person plural pronouns are used to refer to singular individuals when that person's sex is unknown, unimportant, unspecified, or preferably unrevealed (though the last is perhaps with a twinge of guilt).
- They are as p.c. as you wanna be: in this age when the short are actually vertically challenged, and fools are merely differently clued, not only does they lack reference to gender, it also prevents the oppression of that minority group that is so horribly underrepresented (especially since each body gets at most one vote): multiple personalities.
|Meemigh Selfin Aye
University of Houston,
Houston Community College, Clearlake
||The Curious History of the Σπεκουλάτωρ Γραμματεὺς--Donald Reindl
||How to Spot Fabricated Data--Tim Pulju
||SpecGram Vol CXLVII, No 3 Contents