My grammar-sensitive family is in a tizzy over the “On Language” column from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine on the absence of a gender-neutral singular pronoun , a source of copy editing agony that has most recently surfaced on Twitter. In truth, the 140-character limit of the Twitterverse adds very little to an issue that word nerds have long struggled with: the sentence contortions of someone trying to avoid misusing “they” or relying on the gendered “he.” Who among us hasn’t tried at some point alternating his pronouns between “he” and “she,” or scratched her head over whether he/she or s/he looks less belabored?
Authors Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman (Safire’s on vacation) bring some interesting historical tidbits to the discussion. (Feel free to disregard their Twitter quotes, though. Nothing but an attempt to make a stodgy topic feel 2.0.) In a difficult tidbit for Strunk and White enthusiasts to digest, they say that “they” was actually accepted as a singular pronoun (as in “Everybody should lower their voices”) going back as far as Chaucer. The person who suggested subbing in “he” as the default singular pronoun was actually a woman: Anne Fischer, a feminist entrepreneur and grammarian who, like me, just couldn’t stomach the plural “they” being forced into the role of epicene.
I’m curious where others stand on this debate. Any chance of hu or shhe taking off, or are they doomed to an Esperanto-like fate? Should grammar snobs suck it up and agree to use “they” in place of he/she-a suggestion that horrifies my mother, who wrote in an e-mail that she found it “most distressing, to think that even English language mavens are starting to approve of this corruption.” My cousin added that “if this history checks out, we might have some serious pet peeve revisions to do as a family.” (We already lost the battle on another family-wide pet peeve, ” nauseous ,” which formerly meant only inspiring nausea -grounds for a good, admittedly snooty, chuckle when people mistakenly described themselves as such.)
Personally, I’m with Fischer, and would rather agree to treat “he” as gender-free. When I’ve tried to stray from that, I encounter the awkward dance of dodging gender stereotypes: If my attempt to alternate leaves me with “Every doctor should wash his hands” and “The teacher should respect her students,” do I pull a pronoun switcheroo lest I accidentally imply that being a doctor is a man’s job and a teacher a woman’s?