29 August 2010


Dennis Baron at the OUPblog has a excellent and entertaining history of the quest for gender-neutral pronouns in English. As he shows, attempts to add such pronouns to the language go far back into the 19th century. Examples include thon, hiser, ne, nis, nim, among many others. Baron (who is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois) has made a chronological list of such pronouns, available here.

Ne, nis, and nim are referred to in an article in the New York Commercial Advertiser on 7 August 1884 as having been in use 30 years before, and hiser is said to have been previously in use at some unspecified previous time. Baron notes that published uses of these words before 1884 have yet to be found, which I naturally took (briefly, over breakfast) as a challenge to find some.

This attempt quickly turned into another demonstration of the utter inadequacy of Google Books,
in its current incarnation, for research of this type.  (I have previously talked about the inadequacies of Google Book Search here.) A very high proportion of the hits for "nim" and "nis" in a chronologically constrained search of Google Books are uncorrected mistranscriptions by the optical character reader of "him" and "his."  The rest are references to words in other languages (Polish, Latin) and the like. (I searched all documents in English from 1/1/1850 to 12/31/1885.)

It turns out that all of the 19th-century examples of "nim" and "nis" in the Corpus of Historical American English are likewise mistranscriptions of this sort (apart from the use of "NIS" as the abbreviation for the character Nisbe in a play from 1879).

(In both Google Books and COHA, searches on "hiser" turn up hundreds of cases of "Hiser" as a surname.)

The search for gender neutral pronouns has always seemed to me a pseudo-issue, one taken up mainly by language "purists" and prescriptivists (who usually seem to be driven by emotional fixations of which they are not fully aware) and other ideologues.  Usagists will readily point out that singular "they" and related forms have deep historical roots. And there is certainly nothing inherently or logically wrong with having a single pronoun stand for different numbers in different contexts—consider German, for example, where the pronoun "sie" can mean "she," "they," or "you" (formal).  No one is going to misunderstand the use of "their" in a sentence such as "Everyone loves their mother" (an example used by Baron).

When I am trying to write in such as way as to reduce ambiguity and to decrease the amount of cognitive work that the reader has to do (a tack I have always taken in my scholarly writing and which tends to infect my writing in general), my guiding principle is to use "he or she" very sparingly, and only when it is actually called for by the logic of the statement (that is, when I am referring to an actual individual person whose gender is unknown).  Otherwise, I make every effort to avoid singular "they" in writing (I'm sure I use it in everyday speech quite often), not because I'm a purist or prescriptivist, but because I think the juxtaposition of a singular form (like "everyone") with an ambiguous form (like "they" or "their") requires extra and usually unnecessary cognitive work for the reader (even if that work is unconscious).  And I find that it is nearly always possible to recast such a thought in a way that avoids the need for the juxtaposition. That recasting often turns out to be preferable on other grounds as well (it is often more concise, for example).

Baron, at the beginning of his post, cites two recent articles bemoaning the "gender-neutral" problem. Both give as examples sentences that seem to me to be ludicrously easy to recast, suggesting that the writers were just too lazy to bother trying.

Baron cites Lucy Mangan in The Guardian in July of this year:
Do you know how many paragraphs I’ve had to tear down and rebuild because you can’t say, “Somebody left their cheese in the fridge”, so you say, “Somebody left his/her cheese in the fridge”, but then you need to refer to his/her cheese several times thereafter and your writing ends up looking like an explosion in a pedants’ factory?
Obviously if you're writing a piece of fiction, or reporting an actual bit of speech, then "Somebody left their cheese in the fridge" is unexceptionable.  That is the way people talk today.

In the unlikely event that you need to write this sentence in an article in Nature (as a report of fact, not a report of linguistic usage), you could write "Somebody left cheese in the fridge." The possessive pronoun simply isn't necessary in this case.

(Of course, if you were writing for Nature, you would probably actually write: "An individual of unspecified gender deposited 137.83 grams of coagulated milk product in the laboratory refrigeration cabinet and failed to retrieve said quantity of coagulated milk product within the timeframe of the experimental protocol.")

Baron also cites an article by Tom Utley in the Daily Mail in June of 2009:
It never ceases to infuriate me, for example, that in this cornucopia of a million words, there’s no simple, gender-neutral pronoun standing for ‘he-or-she’.

That means we either have to word our way round the problem by using plurals – which don’t mean quite the same thing – or we’re reduced to the verbose and clunking construction: ‘If an MP steals taxpayers’ money, he or she should be ashamed of himself or herself.’ (‘Themselves’, employed to stand for a singular MP, would, of course, be a grammatical abomination). 
This extremist rhetoric ("infuriate," "abomination") seems characteristic of such rants.

And "An MP who steals taxpayers' money should be ashamed" is rather better anyway. 

See, that wasn't so hard.

And what about "Everyone loves their mother"? 

Logically universal statements ("For all X, it is the case that X loves his or her mother") are often more difficult to recast.

But since this statement is certainly empirically false, what's the problem? 

Just don't say it.
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