Talking about Sex

There’s been some interesting gender-switching going on.

Well, at least in the English language there has been for at least 600 years or so.

For those of you who know me, you know I’m pretty into grammar and language history. So I’m excessively excited whenever there’s a new episode of the language podcast Lexicon Valley. And a recent one, Episode 54: Sex Workers, was particularly good.

From their site:

University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan discusses -ess, -ette, -trix, and other feminine endings in the English language.

Maybe not the most gripping sell-copy for you non-grammar folks, but let me tell you: this podcast discusses why and how words like dominatrixeditrix, and songstress work, where they came from, and how they and other sex-based words function in relation to our continuing struggle with gender identity and equality. If this stuff grabs you, then it’s worth your 30 minutes to listen to the whole thing. And probably subscribe, too.

One of the many things in there that made me think was when the guest, Anne Curzan, mentioned the lack of a standard gender-neutral third-person pronoun in English. … that is, how can we refer to him or her if we don’t know which one it is?

For example, if we’ve done away with the terrible and sexist “lady doctor” or the even worse doctress, how can we complete this sentence:

When you see your doctor, ask         how much
red wine        recommends you drink. 

Ask him? Or ask her? Either one still requires some identification of sex. (Clearly this is just a grammar example because we all know that we should drink lots of red wine. For health purposes, of course.)

So how do we form grammatically-correct sentences if we don’t know what’s under Doc’s white coat??

Let me give you my answer: it doesn’t matter. Just use them and they.

Look, I know so many people scream that it’s incorrect grammar to use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. “There’s just one doctor! There’s no them!”

Well, grammar changes. And besides, we already do this in popular speech.

“Who’s your English teacher?
They’ll teach you to use pronouns.”

We all know that they refers to more than one person. Except when we see a sentence like the one above. Then we all understand that the speaker’s thinking, “I don’t know whether to use he or she, so to avoid getting it wrong, I’ll use they. Plus, I don’t want to sound like an idiot with that ridiculous he or she nonsense.”

AND, if you want to get all old-school about it, we already have a historical linguistic precedent for how a plural becomes singular—remember thou? That used to be the second-person singular pronoun until you got all uppity and took over. So we already have a pronoun that works in singular and plural (though, admittedly it can get confusing in certain contexts, which is why we get y’all and youse).

For my money, the singular they does two things that make it invaluable. One is it makes our speech and writing more fluid. If you don’t know a person’s gender, don’t guess or make weird constructions like he/she or (s)he. That just draws attention to the construction of language and how hard you’re working to seem inclusive. Using they makes your communication clearer and easier.

Another thing using the singular they does is it makes our speech more inclusive in a way that many people have been pushing for. Traditionally, English would have used he for any singular of unknown gender. But many argued, and perhaps fairly, that that showed a bias against women and, to be more inclusive, we tried the him or her construction. But that doesn’t fully address current concepts of gender fluidity or the fact that gender doesn’t necessarily need to be a binary system—people don’t always fit into hims or hers.

While some people rail over he/she or suggest totally new words like ze to address the gender-neutral issue, English speakers have already fixed the problem. It’s just that most grammar books (and the English teachers who cling to them) don’t recognize the popular use. But I say it’s OK to use they.

And if a so-called purist gives you flak about “proper” grammar, tell them Shakespeare and Jane Austin also used the singular they.

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