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The Epicene Pronoun

By Dlugar in Culture
Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 10:34:52 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

The generic "he" has fallen under intense scrutiny over the past few decades. By now, it has all but disappeared, leaving us with the unsightly "he or she", or the grammatically incorrect "they". Was "he" a perfectly good inclusive pronoun, or did it deserve to die the same death that has befallen other gender-based inequalities?

I decided to do a little bit of research, and I was surprised what I found out. As usual, all is not so black and white as we sometimes make it out to be.

[Disclaimer: I am not a linguist and have no formal training. I have just enough knowledge to be considered dangerous, so beware.]

I have always felt that the pronoun "he" was unambiguous. I could read the sentence "Man is a mammal: he bears his young live and suckles them at his breasts." without so much as batting an eye. I have studied a few languages at the beginning level, and all I know of have either a true epicene pronoun (such as the Persian u which translates as he and she), or they have a form to denote specifically female (equivalent to she) and a form to denote a person of unspecified gender (equivalent to he). English is missing a pronoun, but it's not a form to denote a person of unspecified gender, it's missing a form to denote specifically masculine!

Allow me to elaborate. Arabic, for example, originally had a mouthful of pronouns: I, thou (masculine), thou (feminine), we, you (masculine), you (feminine), you two, they two (masculine), they two (feminine), they (masculine), and they (feminine). When a group of both males and females was specified, the "default" masculine form is used--there is no word to denote specifically masculine. Was this because of male dominance in society? It seems quite possible. However, it is not exclusionary. It is simply the default form. In Modern dialects of Arabic the only form of "they" that remains is the "default" masculine, and it refers to both groups of men and groups of women alike.

I assume that the same thing happened in English at some point in the formation of the language: there was originally a "they" form that was specifically for a group of females only, and a "they" form that was for a group of mixed or unknown gender, termed masculine. Now that the former has dropped out, do we consider the latter exclusionary language?

In fact, the same thing happened to the singular pronoun "he". Apparently in Old and Middle English the masculine and feminine pronouns were he and heo, respectively. Eventually they became indistinguishable, and it was only later that she entered the language to clear up some of the resulting ambiguity.

So that's it, right? "He" is both feminine and masculine?

Ah, but remember? All is not so simple. Language changes, and things have certainly changed in the English language in the past thousand years. "He" has slowly moved from being both masculine and feminine, to having strong masculine connotations (which I blame on the fact that inanimate objects in English are all neuter, genderless in speech). This dilemma hasn't just been in this past century, either. The "singular they" has been used to get around this problem by Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and many other notable authors. It likely wasn't until Latin grammar started to be applied to the English language that this became "incorrect" (along with splitting infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition--acceptable in English, but hideous in Latin).

Use of the generic "he" itself, however, wasn't attacked directly until the early nineteenth century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge rejected the "generic masculine" as not being sufficiently gender-neutral in some cases, and instead used the neuter "it" on occasion. Since then, hundreds of more gender-neutral pronouns have been invented and all have failed to become mainstream. Finally, the use of the generic "he" was more or less destroyed in the 1970s, mainly due to the efforts of feminists who felt it implied masculinity (and by this point, it probably did). And since then, it has all but disappeared.

The most devious way of circumventing the problem is to rewrite the sentence, usually either by using the plural ("An author may use a pen name to conceal his identity" becomes "Authors may use pen names to conceal their identity") or by moving into the passive voice ("A pen name may be used to conceal an author's identity"). The problem with both of these solutions is that they slightly modify the meaning of the sentences. In the first, the number of "pen names" that each author uses becomes ambiguous, and in the latter the passive voice changes the connotation slightly. Another solution is to use the "you" forms, e.g. "You may use a pen name to conceal your identity," but this usually only works in instructions and documentation.

The "singular they" is growing in popularity when referring to indefinite pronouns (such as anybody, somebody, nobody, anyone, etc.) and perhaps might someday again be considered grammatically correct. "Singular they" is somewhat of a misnomer since, in actuality, you're making the indefinite pronoun plural--which I find grammatically acceptable. Hence: "Anyone who reads this article must make up their mind what they think about it." However, this only works successfully when the antecedent is an indefinite pronoun. You can't say, for example, "If the president of the company calls, tell them to call back tomorrow."

Similarly, "he or she," or the alternative "she or he" and the other many forms, are not satisfactory. You won't find them in very many professional writings. Besides being a mouthful, they are awkward linguistically: "If the president of the company calls, tell him or her to call back tomorrow." In these specific cases, what do you do?

This lack of an epicene, gender-neutral pronoun (or, perhaps, the lack of a specifically masculine pronoun, which would fill in the same gap) is a monstrous hole in the English language. There are some sentiments which we simply cannot express, because we lack the available words to do so. And unlike the missing plural "you" form (which has both "you guys" and "y'all" battling to fill the void), there are no serious applicants for the role of epicene pronoun. The best I've seen so far is the contraction of "he or she or it," in other words, "h'orsh'it".

What means do you use to get around this "gender bias" in your writing? Do you carry on with the time-tested but potentially offensive generic "he"? Do you use "they" even when not referring to an indefinite pronoun? Do you rewrite all your sentences to attempt to cleanse yourself of the problem? Do you use "she or he" or some other variant of politically correctness? And do you ever find yourself, despite all these tricks, wishing there were an actual gender-neutral pronoun?


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When I see someone using the generic "he",
o I don't even notice what he's done. 50%
o I think he or she's an insensitive sexist. 5%
o I just thank heavens they're being grammatically correct. 32%
o I wish e'd use a neologism in eir writings. 11%

Votes: 53
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o epicene pronoun
o same thing happened
o "singular they"
o many other notable authors
o hundreds
o Also by Dlugar

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The Epicene Pronoun | 88 comments (83 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
I like it! (none / 0) (#2)
by Neuromancer on Wed Sep 26, 2001 at 06:57:18 PM EST

Check out this link for something in that vein. I see it all as rather silly. People who have no battles to fight looking to pick a fight. I think that they should realize that it's over... We're all quite sensitive. If we find someone who isn't, then we have protocols to fix it. Go home and enjoy the fruits of your labor oh ye activists. The same people who want to change the language are the ones who reject the "equal rights ammendment" since it guarantees equal rights rather than augmented rights and who use the term "reverse racism." I seriously lost a little respect for Justin Sane when I saw him spell women "womyn," though I still like some of what he has to say.

Woman (4.00 / 1) (#21)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 08:15:38 PM EST

Heh. The etymology of "woman" seems to have done basically the same thing. Back a long, long time ago, before you or I were born, the word "mann" referred to a person of the human race, not necessarily male and not necessarily female. "wyf + mann" and "wer + mann" were used to denote female and male, respectively. The former stuck around (we got "wife" from it, too), while the latter dropped out--and of course sooner or later, a few feminists decided that they didn't like the linguistical roots of the word "women".

I think this is all ridiculous. If you examined the etymology of many words you'd likely find them quite frightening. Should men rebel against the word "husband" because it refers to the house? "How dare you associate us with a house! We're more than just house-owners." If you're going to attack the word "woman", you might as well go after "seminary" and "family" and "femur" and "matrix" and so on and so forth. They're just words, people!


[ Parent ]
I MUST KNOW (none / 0) (#27)
by Neuromancer on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 12:02:59 AM EST

What is the background on the word Seminary?

[ Parent ]
Seminal! (none / 0) (#28)
by garlic on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 12:31:35 AM EST

seminary <-> semen
is the link I believe, with no proof or actual research.

HUSI challenge: post 4 troll diaries on husi without being outed as a Kuron, or having the diaries deleted or moved by admins.
[ Parent ]

Indeed. (none / 0) (#31)
by Dlugar on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 01:43:43 AM EST

From the latin "semen, seminis" which means, predictably, "seed". Apparently the first "seminaries" were not only held in seed plots, but were places to plant seeds in the minds of people. However, only the most radical of feminists suggest changing the word to "ovulary".


[ Parent ]
Why so touchy? (none / 0) (#69)
by itsbruce on Sun Sep 30, 2001 at 09:21:47 AM EST

I seriously lost a little respect for Justin Sane when I saw him spell women "womyn," though I still like some of what he has to say.

I don't see the logic of that. There's a difference between a person choosing carefully the words or spelling they use and them telling you what words you can or can't use. If you otherwise like what he has to say, maybe your reaction to his spelling is your problem and not his.

--I unfortunately do not know how to turn cheese into gold.
[ Parent ]
You missed one. (none / 0) (#3)
by aphrael on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 03:51:28 PM EST

The ordinary rules of English grammar say that for a gender-nonspecific pronoun, you should use 'it'. However, it appears to be socially unacceptable to use this word to refer to a person. *That* is the real problem.

Neuter. (none / 0) (#5)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 04:09:26 PM EST

"It" is the neuter form, not gender-nonspecific. That's why it's socially (and grammatically) unacceptable to use it in reference to a person.


[ Parent ]
ah, you could argue it that way (none / 0) (#29)
by aphrael on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 12:41:45 AM EST

but then you have this: in the case quoted above, 'when the president calls, tell []', do you need the physical gender of the individual who is president or the grammatical gender of the word president? In most indo-european languages, you'd use the latter --- and 'president' is neither masculine nor feminine, so it must be neuter, right?

Of course, you could get out of it by arguing that there is a fourth category which is neither masculien nor feminine nor neuter ... but that misses the question: why is it not acceptable to use the neuter? After all, gramattical gender and physical gender are not linked, as a casual look at the gender rules of other indo-european languages will quickly demonstrate.

[ Parent ]

Possibly :-) (none / 0) (#30)
by Dlugar on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 01:15:31 AM EST

That's the problem with not having gendered nouns in English. Everything is kind of "up in the air," so to speak.

In most indo-european languages, you'd use the gender of the noun "president". In Spanish, I believe "presidente" is masculine, no matter whether "el presidente" is male or female (any Spanish speakers wish to confirm or deny?). In some other languages, it switches: in Arabic, I'm almost positive one would say "il-ra'ees" for a male president, and "il-ra'eesa" for a female president--and, of course, one would use the "default masculine" for a president of unknown gender. (I may be mistaken here--Arabic may do it the same way Spanish does, or vice versa.)

In English, however, the word "president" seems to switch depending on the gender, just like Arabic--however, no suffix is added to denote this, we simply use the same word and change and pronouns referring to it. "The president left her house," and "The president left his house," depending on whether the president is a male or female. Never in English do we consider a human-related noun neuter, an "it". [Latin does so, I know, and other languages may as well--but English apparently does not.]

From all this, I would guess that in English, the same as in Arabic, one would use the "default masculine" to refer to a president of unknown gender. However, as I noted in a post below, due to the lack of gendered nouns in English (apart from ones that refer to people), we've come to the point (a hundred or two years ago, actually) that "he" connotes a definite masculinity, and some feel is exclusionary. And now what do we do!?


[ Parent ]
Part of the problem (none / 0) (#37)
by aphrael on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:39:48 AM EST

is that in English inflections only seem to apply to pronouns that refer to humans, and only people or objects which have been allowed to take on human qualities (a ship, for example) have gender. It would be much more clear, somehow, if we inflected nouns for gender along the german model (for example), and not just pronouns.

Never in English do we consider a human-related noun neuter, an "it".

I submit that there is nothing except social convention that requires that this be so, and that aside from the emotional reaction it seems to engender, there is no good reason within the rules of the language for not doing so.

[ Parent ]

A thought (3.00 / 1) (#39)
by schlouse on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:57:30 AM EST

First, I'd like to say that I find your article and some of the discussion threads generated by it very interesting. Enough so, in fact, that after about 2 years of chronic lurking I finally create an account to reply!

It seems to me that English is a real bastard-child language, and has been very heavily influenced by word corruption and borrowing from other languages. When you combine this with the general truth that most (American, at least) students are not schooled well in Latin/Greek roots, I think you end up with a population that does not hold grammar as being altogether very static. I remember reading somewhere that English is the fastest growing language on earth. If you throw a couple more factors into the mix, corporate-speak, and the international presence of English, you really have a recipe for some interesting language evolution.

Traditionally, Joe Regular in the United States does not really ever write anything past high school. But toss however many hundred million computers, both at work and home, into the mix, add cheap internet access and all of a sudden you have some pretty strange things going on.

So what I'm trying to say here is that once you've got commoners interacting more and more heavily with the written word, I believe many colloquialisms are going to become more codified, and in time, generally accepted parts of written speech. The ungramattical use of "they", for example, is so embedded now that most people that use it don't know that it technically is not correct. The others may know but not care.

To most people, things that look right are right. Once the definition of "right" changes, then you get some interesting fallout. If you think about how somebody would actually verbally say the thought:

When the president calls, tell [the president] to call me back.

You'd probably come up with:

"When the president calls, tell'em to call me back."

So it would not surprise me to see convienent corruptions of the pronouns, which would function to remove percieved gender bias, as eventually somehow becoming common usage. It's an interesting thought, at least. Unfortunately I don't really have any linguistic education background, I'm not too sure about the history of this kind of thing in Engish.

Mark S.

[ Parent ]

Thanks for posting. :-) (none / 0) (#51)
by Dlugar on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 04:05:04 PM EST

I fully agree--and actually, this "fluidity" of the English language is one of the things I'm most fond of, that it moves so quickly.

That's why I'm so "worried" [relatively speaking] about this third-person singular hole of the language. Sure, "Tell'em" works well in casual conversation, but it's difficult to use in technical writing. In addition, the same thing doesn't work for "his/hers" ... 'em is more of a corruption of "him" than of "them", so saying "eir" just doesn't work well in our minds. We'd be more likely to say, "Tell'em to call me back on his cell-phone" than we would "Tell'em to call me back on 'eir cell-phone."

And that's the gap I don't see any words "evolving" to fill, even the singular "they".


[ Parent ]
Surely 'em is stricly an abbreviation of 'them' (none / 0) (#86)
by miller on Thu Oct 04, 2001 at 02:45:17 PM EST

I haven't checked, but I seem to remember that the people who write the Oxford English Dictionary decreed that 'they' as the third-person singular pronoun was acceptable in the light of the difficulties over 'he'. While they may not be the authority, they are an authority on usage.

The company president example is a little contrived for my tastes, as surely the speaker is going to know the sex of the president and hence the gender of the word 'president'. Using someone the speaker has not already met works better; 'if the maid comes with my room service while I'm in the shower, give them a tip from my wallet' - which can also demonstrate that referring to the maid as 'him' is also awkward due to social expectations.

Personally I solve the problem by using 'they' in informal writing, and using safe sentence structure in formal writing (third person passive, as the author was taught at school).

FYI, in the north of England the plural of 'you', 'yous' has been heard. I'm not sure if this usage has spread any further afield.

It's too bad I don't take drugs, I think it would be even better. -- Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Corrections (none / 0) (#87)
by miller on Fri Oct 05, 2001 at 10:34:50 AM EST

My mistake; the OED says that the use of 'they' is common in colloquial speech but 'considered ungrammatical' in formal writing.

Also, the third person passive form in writing is very little help in removing the need for a third person singular ungendered pronoun. Third person actually makes you and I into third persons by splitting the narrator and the author and referring to you as the reader. Passive tense has very little effect other than to introduce the target before the actor - if they're both the same third person it's trouble either way around.

Using the passive voice may be the key to using some of the other solutions to the problem and still allowing them to flow.

It's sometimes possible to refer to the third party in full multiple times, and can work quite well with access to a thesaurus; "The author would like to be disassociated from the comments herein; this writer has good self-preservation instincts".

It's possible to modify the third into the first or even second persons, but this tend to come across as rather informal; "If I were Fred I wouldn't be doing that; I wouldn't even be talking to Sheila".

I'm sure there are other tricks you can pull. It takes a bit of work but one of the nice things about English is that while it does have a pretty strict grammar, there are more than enough alternatives available to allow a little artistic merit to be applied.

It's too bad I don't take drugs, I think it would be even better. -- Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Person (none / 0) (#20)
by Leoa on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 08:11:03 PM EST

What you are missing is "person".

Just use person/s as a/the gender-non-specific noun/s to substitute the pronoun/s you want to have replaced. Problem solved.
"If the company's president calls, tell the person to call back tomorrow."
May sound rude to start out with, but since you are talking behind this person's back it won't matter anyway.


...but what do i know
[ Parent ]
Still unclear; not a pronoun. (none / 0) (#22)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 08:25:07 PM EST

What's the possessive form?
Chris signed [the person's] name.
It may work in the situation you described (which is a good hole to plug, even though it still sounds awkward), but as you can see, it's far from a satisfactory solution.
When the president calls, tell [the person] when the meeting is tomorrow.
Again, you can't use "the person" in this situation because it's very unclear. Pronouns are supposed to refer back to something--what does "the person" refer to? We're simply not used to it referring back to another noun in the same sentence. One would think that "the person" you're referring to is somebody totally different, not the president, and not Chris.

An interesting solution, however.


[ Parent ]
Well... (none / 0) (#47)
by Leoa on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 01:26:19 PM EST

...I haven't understood what the fuss is about. And I am still at the margin of understanding it.
But why is it that you make such a fuss about it? The English language has survived and reinvented itself for hundreds of years. It has adapted many forms and words from other languages and has constantly changed.
A language is a living thing. Let it evolve, let it roam free. The only importance is communication and -as I see this here- communication seemed to work fine until now. Some misunderstandings here and there but Chris can sign his or her name just fine, as long as Chris knows what kind of person the person is.

after all a Leo

...but what do i know
[ Parent ]
Hole in the language? (none / 0) (#4)
by molybdenum on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 03:59:54 PM EST

There are some sentiments which we simply cannot express, because we lack the available words to do so.

What sentiments are these exactly? Just because we don't have a single, unique word to represent a concept doesn't mean that we can't represent it. It may take a couple words to express an idea, such as a gender-neutral reference.

If we needed an epicene pronoun, we'd be using one, or starting to at least. For right now, it seems that most people are comfortable using "he or she" or "they" (in colloquial speech).


Let me rephrase. (none / 0) (#6)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 04:17:24 PM EST

It's impossible to elegantly express certain ideas. In colloquial speech, "he" is sometimes used, "he or she" is sometimes used, and "they" is sometimes used--but each of these "workarounds" is distracting and inelegant to different portions of the population.

How, exactly, would you intimate the concept:
"Chris signed [his|her] name."
If you do not know the gender of the person in question, I cannot come up with a single elegant way to express this. "His or her" sounds stilted, and "their" only confuses, besides being grammatically incorrect.


[ Parent ]
I still think (none / 0) (#35)
by aphrael on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:36:13 AM EST

"Chris signed it's name" would be perfectly acceptable within the rules of the language, and find it unfortunate that that isn't the accepted usage.

[ Parent ]
Hehe (none / 0) (#42)
by ajf on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 09:42:24 AM EST

No it wouldn't. I think you mean "its", which I still wouldn't care for, but at least it wouldn't be plain wrong.

(I wouldn't normally bother with such a pathetic correction, but you said "perfectly acceptable", and I'm very weak willed.)

"I have no idea if it is true or not, but given what you read on the Web, it seems to be a valid concern." -jjayson
[ Parent ]
True ... (none / 0) (#44)
by aphrael on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 11:09:25 AM EST

but then i think conjunctions ought to be banned. :)

[ Parent ]
Conjunctions should be banned? (none / 0) (#85)
by vectro on Thu Oct 04, 2001 at 01:32:58 PM EST

What did the word "and" ever do to you?

“The problem with that definition is just that it's bullshit.” -- localroger
[ Parent ]
Publisher's take (none / 0) (#8)
by slaytanic killer on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 04:32:37 PM EST

Here is O'Reilly's take on the issue (it's hard to find a permanent link, so it will eventually be on the sidebar.)

In my case, I tend to alternate, but use the feminine more often when it would be unusual to do so. I agree, it's a damn stupid hole, especially since American English doesn't make much use of "one," which sounds better from the mouth of a Brit.

Alternation (none / 0) (#10)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 06:30:15 PM EST

Still, some major problems exist with alternation, too ...
A related strategy is to alternate using masculine and feminine generic pronouns in succeeding paragraphs, sections, or chapters. For example, always use he/him/his in odd numbered chapters, and always use she/her/hers in even numbered chapters. This strategy does promote balance and has sometimes been used to good effect in textbooks, but it doesn't solve the real problem of distracting the reader. Half the time you are asking your male readers to identify with a female agent, and the other half, asking female readers to identify with a male agent. Even worse, the amount of background "housekeeping" required to ensure that you've applied this strategy consistently is a lot of work, and invites errors when you are doing high volume writing on tight schedules. For this reason alone, I don't recommend using it in the context of technical and business writing.
          -- Technical Writing and the Pronoun Problem


[ Parent ]
what I do (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by garbanzo on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 06:28:11 PM EST

If I'm thinking about it, I just use 'she' to refer to a theoretical person. This falls into my personal policy of "equal-share means equal-blame." If I am in the voting booth and I have to pick a candidate and I have no idea which one to pick (e.g. "clerk of whatever") then I will always pick the female candidate, if one is available.

If the reference is to someone definitely male, then I use 'he.' If I am not thinking about it, I'll probably use 'he' but mean it in the generic sense that you discuss. Guess I'm still an opressor at heart. <sigh>. Sometimes, I'll resort to 'one' but you are right it is awkward. The only American speaker who pulled off "one" well (without sounding British) was Fats Waller: "one never knows, do one?"

sure, it's all fun and games--until someone puts an eye out

sexist (none / 0) (#12)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 06:38:40 PM EST

This falls into my personal policy of "equal-share means equal-blame."
Great, you're one of those who feels that a little sexism in the other direction helps to "balance things out a little." Ah well. To each his own ;-)

Guess I'm still an opressor at heart.
Not an oppressor, simply someone who uses the best tool available for the job--the pronoun that for many years was considered "both he and she", but now has less of that connotation. I don't consider using the generic "he" sexist--as I mentioned above, there's not really a good alternative.


[ Parent ]
Relevance of (extreme) grammar (4.00 / 1) (#11)
by Hobbes2100 on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 06:33:51 PM EST

Hello all,

I must say that I really could not care less about particular forms in grammar. Specifically, after a certain point (that point where we can understand what an author is communicating), it is rediculous to bother ourselves with further details.

To quote from someone's link to O'Reilly (a publisher, not a commentator):

"[as anybody can see for themselves] sets the literary man's teeth on edge"

Presuming this also extends to "their" for "his/her" and this ilk, I have to simply shake my head in wonder. So few authors actually bring beautiful language to their writing that I can't take this seriously. Of those who do write beautifully, their choice of medium tends to be poetry. Or perhaps to rephrase, the beautiful writings I've read have tended to be poetry, not prose.

I'm very curious why the literary man is so concerned with form and not with function. I suppose some of you English majors out there could enlighten me, but as long as I can interpret what the author is saying, and since there are limits to this communication anyway, then it doesn't really matter. Now, I will admit that word choices can affect interpretation, but this is more of a lexical issue then a syntactic one.

Am I just an ignoramous? Should I care less about ideas and more about fluff?

Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? --Iuvenalis
But who will guard the guardians themselves? -- Juvenal
grammer (3.00 / 1) (#13)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 06:58:46 PM EST

grammers important sumtimes becuz it makes it easier to tell what sort of thing the guy is talking about. i mean, its' not necessary always, but it sure makes things easier.

Most people do not consider proper grammar "fluff". The form is highly important to the function, because poor grammar and/or spelling makes one's writing difficult to understand. Even though you can tell what I'm communicating in my first paragraph, the things that are missing aren't "ridiculous details"--they're a necessary part of the function as well--they, whether you like it or not,

I agree that silly little rules shouldn't be a big issue. I don't have any problem with people using "their" when referring to an indefinite pronoun (like your "anybody" example). However, there are cases when "their" doesn't fit well, and I gave a few examples at the end of my article. What do we do then?


[ Parent ]
I would contend... (none / 0) (#48)
by Vermifax on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 01:48:08 PM EST

...that most people (in the sense of the general population of english speaking people) don't care about grammar one whit. Heck, I am almost positive that I have already made a grammar boo-boo, and I'm not even going to check.
- Welcome to the Federation Starship SS Buttcrack.
[ Parent ]
True, but..... (none / 0) (#88)
by bmhkim on Tue Oct 09, 2001 at 05:39:38 AM EST

I agree with you entirely when you say that grammar impacts what meaning we glean from verbal/textual communication, but in a generally gender-neutral language like English, must we continue this debate over the use of the word 'he'? This strikes me as a perfect example of the extreme senstivity of some individuals. Eventually, we may end up castrating our language to the point where we can express ourselves negatively using a very limited language set. As an example, try removing all objectionable insults from your vocabulary and try to insult someone/express negativity in almost any form. Common examples include "that's lame" (objectionable to the disabled), "that's gay" (objectionable to the homosexual), "I feel like sh--" (objectionable on questionable content), "I feel like cr--" (objectionable on questionable content), "f--- you" (objectionable on questionable content), etc. Soon, all you will be able to say is "I feel bad" (objectionable due to negative content?).

otoh, it could be said that our language defines how we as a people think. Remember 1984 and newspeak/oldspeak -- by limiting what people know how to say, you control what people can express, thus demonstrating the power of language. Subtle nuances in language could very possibly have positive/negative influences on the way we think and the way we behave.

Am I just blowing smoke out of my a--? (objectionable due to content?)

[ Parent ]
Re: Relevance of (extreme) grammar (3.50 / 2) (#14)
by Eimi on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 07:03:58 PM EST

The problem is that for some people (like me), it does make a difference. It changes the meaning in ways that just don't work.
as anybody can see for themselves
Take a look at that in detail.
"as anybody"
grab a person at random
"can see"
still just one
"for themselves"
Whoah, where'd the extra people come from?
I guess it does sound silly, but it's the same reason the whole "it's"/"it's" and "they're"/"their"/"there" things bother me. The act of reading is basically parsing the document, and problems like that throw a parse error (scalar expected, but we got a list). Actually it's the same reason I don't like the English convention that punctuation goes inside quotation marks. I've just got too much of a CS mind, I think.

[ Parent ]
Me too. (none / 0) (#24)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 09:42:26 PM EST

The same parsing thing happens with me too--I think it's just a different level for each person. Some people don't parse "anybody" to mean a single person, therefore agreeing with a singular verb. Some people don't parse "it's/its" any differently. Some people don't parse "lose and loose" differently enough to cause problems.

It's a different point for everyone, but I think we all have that certain point where the writing just becomes too muddled to wade through, because the grammatical errors are distracting. Even though it's not the case with everybody, for you and for me, "Anybody can see for themselves" throws the parsing engine in our head haywire. Oh well.


p.s. Ever read the Jargon file stuff about putting punctuation on the outside of quote marks? Apparently it's becoming more accepted. Whenever I can get away with it, the non-relevant punctuation is relegated "outside the quotes".

[ Parent ]
Punctuation on the outside of quote marks (4.00 / 1) (#34)
by aphrael on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:34:13 AM EST

for me, this has always depended on whether the punctuation is part of the quote -- eg: "Holy Shit!" gets the exclamation on the inside, but the period goes on the outside when i'm quoting something random like "this".

The big difficulty i have, though, is that in sentences like: He said 'Holy Shit!'(leaving aside the ambiguity of whether or not i'm exclaiming, too), I want added punctuation, eg: He said 'Holy Shit!'.

[ Parent ]

If I'm not mistaken ... (none / 0) (#54)
by Dlugar on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 06:17:37 PM EST

I think it's only periods and commas to which the "inside the parentheses" rule applies, and which could be ambiguous. If I remember correctly, even in standard American usage, the exclamation goes where it belongs: hence, "Oh darn!" if the person you're quoting exclaimed it, or He said, "Oh darn"! if you're the one exclaiming. I'm pretty sure that's standard usage for everything except periods and commas, and I can't think of a situation they'd be ambiguous.


[ Parent ]
Actually... (none / 0) (#79)
by locke baron on Tue Oct 02, 2001 at 03:18:07 AM EST

Everyone I know would phrase that as "As anyone can see for themself", FWIW

Micro$oft uses Quake clannies to wage war on Iraq! - explodingheadboy
[ Parent ]
As a past English major ... (none / 0) (#49)
by kostya on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:10:44 PM EST

I'm very curious why the literary man is so concerned with form and not with function.

What I find truly surprising is that you would even as such a question.

This is Kuro5hin, right? You are posting on k5, correct? The place where accuracy and precision are almost prerequisites for any discussion?

When our only medium is words and how they fit together, the form becomes an important part of the function. Sure, we could get by with small vocabulary of words and 2nd grader grammar, but then it would be difficult to express ourselves clearly. There is a reason that some languages (both natural and computer) are described as more expressive than others.

Form is a vital part of function when it comes to language. Form, however, is the whole of function in language. I'll grant you that many people get very worked up over very little, but that fringe of grammar maniacs does not dismiss the need and the importance of grammar in general.

Veritas otium parit. --Terence
[ Parent ]
Some people suggest new pronouns (5.00 / 2) (#15)
by itsbruce on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 07:11:42 PM EST

I've seen "Heshe" and "Herm" suggested. Though they sound more like a pair of Jewish comedians to me.

--I unfortunately do not know how to turn cheese into gold.

Problem with that (none / 0) (#43)
by JonesBoy on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 09:49:32 AM EST

Heshe is usually reserved for transexuals or sex-change-ees, at least in the Eastern United states. Usage might add a bit of uncomfortable misunderstandings. :)

Speeding never killed anyone. Stopping did.
[ Parent ]
How about "sheheit" then? (5.00 / 1) (#45)
by itsbruce on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 12:35:27 PM EST

On second thoughts, that would have problems all over the states...

--I unfortunately do not know how to turn cheese into gold.
[ Parent ]
This is generally abbreviated... (3.33 / 3) (#53)
by kelkemesh on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 04:49:59 PM EST

to s/h/it.

[ Parent ]
I read once... (none / 0) (#68)
by eric.t.f.bat on Sun Sep 30, 2001 at 07:35:33 AM EST

... a slightly longer contraction, along the same (irreverent) lines: he or she or it is abbreviated as h'orsh'it.

Heh. Me, I use "them", including in the general case of "If the president calls, tell them to call back." I believe this is more common in Australia, but I may be wrong.

Incidentally, if the President (rather than the generic president) did actually call, I'd tell him to stop saying 'Make no mistake' every five minutes. His speechwriters need to get some new down home colloquialisms.

But I digress.

: Fruitbat :

[ Parent ]
Something I saw happen once, and an observation (3.50 / 2) (#17)
by regeya on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 07:27:22 PM EST

I was taking an introductory Spanish course, and one of the female students nearly went into a rage when she was told it was almost impossible to be gender-neutral in Spanish. That was also the last class she attended.

My (totally unsubstantiated) theory is that it's a holdover, the "bad" influence of Romance languages.

One popular "fix" during my college years was to refer to a party of unknown gender as "she" rather than "he." How that was a fix for gender-biased English is beyond comprehension.

I tend to go for the gramatically-incorrect "they" when speaking and come up with convoluted, cumbersome solutions for getting around the gender issue. It's almost always different because one has to be creative. (See, I slipped one in!)

[ yokelpunk | kuro5hin diary ]

Other Languages (4.50 / 2) (#19)
by Dlugar on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 07:54:58 PM EST

one of the female students nearly went into a rage when she was told it was almost impossible to be gender-neutral in Spanish.
On the contrary! You can't really not be gender-neutral in Spanish. The third person singular pronoun su refers to both masculine and feminine, just like our "their". Both "his book" and "her book" translate to "su libro".

I think one of the major reasons that other languages don't worry about not having a gender-neutral pronoun is because everything is gendered. In Arabic, for example, if you're talking about an inanimate object, you use the default "he", since there is no neuter. For example:
What do you have hidden in that box? Let me guess: can you carry things in him? Do you bring him to school every day? Is he green?
Then, as soon as you know the gender of the inanimate object,
I know! She's your backpack!
you switch to the correctly gendered pronoun. (Backpacks, in Arabic, happen to female.)

Hence no one in other languages feels that to call an unknown something by the default masculine is exclusionary, because they use it every day. No one in their right mind would think that a backpack would be excluded from possibly being in the box, simply because the person was using the default "he" to refer to it. It's just how the language works.

Meanwhile, back in English, we use neuter for inanimate objects, and gendered pronouns only for people. Hence, after a while of this, I imagine some people felt it seemed exclusionary--until now, it's so hammered into our brains that he means male and she means female, that it is exclusionary! A wondrous fix we've worked ourselves into, and I don't honestly know how we can get ourselves out.


[ Parent ]
Reminds me of Calivin & Hobbes (5.00 / 3) (#36)
by sigwinch on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:37:29 AM EST

You can't really not be gender-neutral in Spanish. The third person singular pronoun su refers to both masculine and feminine, just like our "their". Both "his book" and "her book" translate to "su libro".
This whole discussion reminds me of a Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin stands up in class and demands to know the gender of things. "Is this desk masculine or feminine? Foreign kids get taught these things, and I deserve to know too."

I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

But the Germans do it too. (5.00 / 1) (#33)
by aphrael on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:28:58 AM EST

the "bad" influence of Romance languages.

That's ridiculous; it's not significantly more difficult to be gender neutral in Spanish than it is in German, where every noun in the language has some gender or another associated with it. This seems to be a standard feature of indo-european languages, in fact.

[ Parent ]

In German (4.66 / 3) (#23)
by wiredog on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 08:37:56 PM EST

In German a little girl has no sex, but a turnip does.
Mark Twain, "The Horrible German Tongue"

English is the result of a Norman man at arms trying to get in bed with a Saxon barmaid.(Paraphrased from H Beam Piper)

If there's a choice between performance and ease of use, Linux will go for performance every time. -- Jerry Pournelle

Has anyone used an epicene pronoun on kuro5hin? (none / 0) (#25)
by chipuni on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 10:24:15 PM EST

I agree that there needs to be an epicene pronoun. But... aside from as a response to this article, has anyone used one on Kuro5hin? Aside from my intentional use of 'she' in one response, has anyone here commented on the inherent sexism of English before this article came out?

Perfection is not reached when nothing more can be added, but only when nothing more can be taken away.
Wisdom for short attention spans.
One shouldn't take gender bias so seriously (4.00 / 2) (#26)
by tmoertel on Thu Sep 27, 2001 at 10:27:39 PM EST

What about one?
One may tip one's hat to say hello.
Sure, it sounds a trifle aristocratic, but it's better than "A man or woman may tip his or her hat to say hello."

I use one on occasion, but usually I don't worry about "gender bias" in my writing. My belief is that gender bias is largely political in construction, and the less attention given to such issues the better. One would be wiser to invest one's time in more fruitful pursuits:

  • understanding what you're trying to communicate;
  • making sure your thoughts are clear before writing about them;
  • being direct, clear, and concise;
  • editing with merciless resolve;
  • proofreading;
and last, but certainly not least,
  • re-reading Strunk & White or anything by The Brothers Fowler now and again.
Writing well is difficult. When writing, therefore, invest your effort in the details, not the distractions.

My blog | LectroTest

[ Disagree? Reply. ]

"They" is fine--deal with it. (5.00 / 3) (#32)
by merkri on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:00:19 AM EST

There was an article about this issue in The Atlantic not too long ago.

I predict "they" will quickly become the pronoun of choice (if it isn't currently the pronoun of choice) for at least two reasons:

(1) It's what people use informally. Despite what grammar elitists say, there are no rules of language, only usage patterns. If we all start speaking in one way, that will become the norm. What is "correct" grammar was once "incorrect". Saying "they" is incorrect is a meaningless statement--if everyone comes to use it in a certain way, it is correct. Everyone is already using it that way. Most of us use it in speech and aren't even aware of it--the meaning is perfectly understood. Therefore, for all practical purposes, "they" is correct usage.

(2) Use of the plural when gender is unknown or the individual is unfamiliar or of higher authority is common in many languages. Russian, if I recall correctly, works somewhat in this way. In any case, even if no other language worked in this way, it would be fine if meaning were understood and it was as standard as usage can be (see 1, above).

So just use "they" and don't worry about it. There is no grammatical problem. It's just that we're witnessing a shift in use right now--what was acceptable is no longer acceptable, and the replacement isn't completely accepted by elitists quite yet, even though it's in widespread use, because they can't shake off old usage. Ten years from now, the OED or Webster's will decide it's time to document this change in use, and people will be writing articles about the fact that it happened. Language is not hierarchical. You can't command usage--you can only observe it.

Uninformativeness (none / 0) (#41)
by kaatunut on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 08:38:38 AM EST

However, usage of 'they' introduces another uninformativeness into the language. "They told Kari to stand watch and call out if they sees anyone. Not a long while passed when they (Kari, of unknown or not applicable gender) spotted a strange figure at distance. They was about to shout 'halt! who goeth there!' to them, at which point the grammar broke down and Kari forgot who he was shouting to and what.

To a foreigner like me, it seems english, which apparently will be the dominating language for a while yet, doesn't need another patchwork making the language more ambiguous.

As a non-gendered 3rd person, 'they' loses the distinction between previously mentioned group and previously mentioned individual. 'It' loses the distinction between human (or equivalent, like dogs and cats in some people's usage of language) and objects. He/she as it is today has no neutral form, and he/she earlier loses distinction between specifically male and unknown gender. Artificial pronoun loses nothing, but adds complexity to grammar. Thus it would seem to me that the current trend of 'they' would be a terrible choice. Sigh.

To make this more than an useless rant, I would consider this: how come there are countless failed genderless pronouns and still new words (mostly verbs and nouns) appear all the time in other fields so easily? Are pronouns etched too deep in people's minds? For purposes of informativeness, artifical pronoun would seem the best alternative. Couldn't someone figure out a artificial pronoun that would function as a really powerful meme like some phrases better left unmentioned (I wonder if "All your base are belong to us" had any furthering effect in blurring the singular/plural distinction ;) )?

P.S. For any finnish readers, I would like to note that for me personally "särki" as a replacement for "rikki" as in "mun kone on särki" is now so normal I can't understand why people sometimes ask "what?" when I say so. Just memetically engineer a similar effect.

there's hole up in the sky from where the angels fall to sire children that grow up too tall, there's hole down in the ground where all the dead men go down purgatory's highways that gun their souls
[ Parent ]

True, true. (none / 0) (#52)
by Dlugar on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 04:30:08 PM EST

Said it better than I could myself.
how come there are countless failed genderless pronouns and still new words (mostly verbs and nouns) appear all the time in other fields so easily?
That was basically the point of my entire article. I think the problem has multiple heads. One is that, yes, pronouns are very difficult to change--they haven't changed at all in English since the "thou/you" switchover, and that was getting rid of a pronoun, not adding a new one in.

English does not have a history of accepting new words thrust upon it; rather, English tends to go out and seek other words, place them in colloquial usage first, and eventually they make it into general usage. When you try to force a word (such as neologistic epicene pronouns) into general usage first, and then into colloquial usage, you are bound to fail.

Another major reason is that no one seems to be able to come up with a good pronoun that is simple, memorable, and easy to pronounce in all five forms [I, me, my, mine, myself]. The modern neologism section of the Gender Neutral Pronoun FAQ talks about this in great detail, and lists a ton of attempted pronouns, along with the problems associated with each.

My own personal idea is to use "u" [pronounced "oo"] as the epicene pronoun. However, mine is even more complicated than the rest, sadly enough. First of all, it is only a single letter and can get lost, so do you use lowercase "u", or uppercase "U" like the pronoun "I"?

Then also, You have to look at each of the five forms to make certain they are all easy to pronounce. Both subject and object could easily be "u" [since "you" doesn't change, either]. "uself" works well for the reflexive. The possessive gives problems, however, because you want to tack an 's' on the end, making it "us" which is already taken. Because of my Arabic background, I want to make it an enclitic, so that to say [his] book, you would say "book'u" using an apostrophe in the same manner one would use an apostrophe-s to denote "Dlugar's book". The possessive adjective would then be "d'u" following the lead of many other languages.

U saw the farmer.
The farmer saw u.
It was on farm'u. {It was on [his|her] farm.}
The farm was d'u. {The farm was [his|hers].}
U looked in the mirror and saw uself.

All this is, of course, ridiculous, and I simply shake my head in disgust. Can you come up with anything better?


[ Parent ]
But the real problem is... (none / 0) (#59)
by kaatunut on Sat Sep 29, 2001 at 04:56:48 AM EST

31337 language. Curiously enough, though pronouns are hard to change, it seems some memes are stronger. When you said "U saw the farmer" my first thought was "what, since when have l33ts used capital letters?" :) So 'u' is out, I think, as it already has stronger association with 'you' (and lameness). But isn't it interesting that in certain social circles one of the fundamental pronouns has transformed so easily? Something like that is what I'd hope happened to genderless pronoun. The 'u/you' transformation isn't half bad either, it's only that it's been associated with lameness.

there's hole up in the sky from where the angels fall to sire children that grow up too tall, there's hole down in the ground where all the dead men go down purgatory's highways that gun their souls
[ Parent ]

Blast. I didn't even think of that. (none / 0) (#73)
by Dlugar on Mon Oct 01, 2001 at 12:19:16 AM EST

Dood! U r like so right! Totally.

*sigh* Well, seems like that's already taken by the darn meme pool. Got any better, super-easily pronounceable five forms?


[ Parent ]
time redefines itself (none / 0) (#76)
by kaatunut on Mon Oct 01, 2001 at 11:38:42 AM EST

I think if we want GNP in english, instead of going this "enlightened language wielders" route everyone takes (convincing people why gendered pronouns are baaaaad), we'd have to hit the button that testedly is most effective in changing our behaviour: emotion. The U phenomenon I mentioned above serves to demonstrate that if a new grammatical feature is easy, convenient but above all very "cool", they'll pick it up. Unfortunately I'm not quite familiar with genealogy of the 'u' pronoun (2nd singular), but it might be interesting...

There are some traits of the u that are useful, such as shortness, pronounciation similarity, coadaptive memetic evolution (u r 4ever), but what I'm most interested in the propagation. Does anyone know where it originated? Was it old grammatical form or invented by h4x0rs? Did it spread like a wildfire once picked up by some respected figures? Was it just so catchy that whenever you saw some bypasser use it, you had to too? (For any finnish out there, I even today say 'särki' instead of 'rikki' for the sole amusement value. Talk about effective meme.)

Anyways, the point is, I doubt all this scholarly GNP discussion really does anything beyond amusing us :) for it to be adopted, it'd have to be a succesful meme. Mmm.

P.S. I propose 'ey'. It's similar to 'they' which is almost accepted but not that broken, and even if left unexplained to the reader is not very hard to figure out. Though whether it's sufficiently cool, I can't tell...

there's hole up in the sky from where the angels fall to sire children that grow up too tall, there's hole down in the ground where all the dead men go down purgatory's highways that gun their souls
[ Parent ]

You (none / 0) (#78)
by Dlugar on Mon Oct 01, 2001 at 02:51:47 PM EST

The letter "u" is pronounced the exact same as the word "you". That's as simple as it gets. The usage has been around since long before script kiddiez, though. I first saw it used in grade school notes, simply shorthand for those who didn't have time to write out the whole thing. I imagine it's been around in that form for quite a while.

As for "ey", it seems to be the most popular, but I have some severe beefs with it, at least in the full form "ey, em, eir, eirs, emself".
  • "ey", the long A sound, is one of the more difficult vowels to say [try it], and Americans are lazy. That's why the indefinite article "a" is usually pronounced as a schwa ("uh"). Without a consonant at the beginning, it makes it even more strained.
  • "em" sounds an awful lot like "him", especially when saying things like "tell'em tomorrow," which is what we already say colloquially. This doesn't seem to imply gender any less than "tell him tomorrow".
  • "eir" and "eirs", the possessive forms, are awkward to say and to spell.
  • "emself" has the same problem as "em", in that it's basically what we're using already.
  • In addition, the entire group is too easily confused with "they", implying not genderlessness, but rather a plurality. If I say, "Ey took eir clothes and hung them up in eir closet," it sounds like I'm talking about a group of people rather than a single person of unknown gender.
Insurmountable problems? No, probably not, but in my opinion big enough problems to prevent this particular set from being used even very colloquially.


p.s. I'm becoming fond of the tongue-in-cheek "smrtz", for all five forms. i.e. "Smrtz took smrtz clothes and hung them up in smrtz closet." Heh.

[ Parent ]
a true damnation when I turned away (none / 0) (#80)
by kaatunut on Tue Oct 02, 2001 at 05:37:49 AM EST

Yeah... if you pronounce it that way. Might be just I'm a foreigner, but I never figured english pronounciation out beyond "just use the words till you learn how they go". I can't think any really enlightening on the top of my head, but I recall wondering yesterday about the differences between hoe and shoe. Anyways, the point is, whether that and countless other differences are some remains on old forms pronounced differently or whatever, I'd guess the pronounciation is fairly free to pick.

The "ey" pronoun was created by simply dropping "th" from front, why not do the same with pronounciation? "ey" would sound like you described it (though what's hard in it beats me. You do it every day with "they", don't you?), the "em" would function just like you said it so it's easier to move to, "eir/s" would sound like "heir" and emself is, indeed, ditto em.

Well yeah, "ey" might be confused with plurality, but the way we're going we'll be using an identical form to plurality, they 'singular they'. Don't you think this is better? And an artificial pronoun is, well, much more difficult to enter. I'd go for 'ey' as a sufficiently good compromise.

p.s. I'm becoming fond of the tongue-in-cheek "smrtz", for all five forms. i.e. "Smrtz took smrtz clothes and hung them up in smrtz closet." Heh.

"Marklar marklar marklar marklkar and marklar marklar up in marklar marklar."

there's hole up in the sky from where the angels fall to sire children that grow up too tall, there's hole down in the ground where all the dead men go down purgatory's highways that gun their souls
[ Parent ]

All too true, but sadly ... (none / 0) (#81)
by Dlugar on Tue Oct 02, 2001 at 11:40:34 AM EST

I agree, it's a good compromise ... I was simply listing the reasons I didn't think it would become used colloquially. Sad? Perhaps. True? I think so.

Perhaps since you're not a native English speaker you don't do it nor have problems with it--but Americans are very lazy with their vowels. Everything turns into a big mush, mostly everything leaning towards shwas. When Americans have to learn a foreign language, by far the most difficult pronunciation task is to always pronounce the vowels [and consonants, sometimes] clearly and correctly. My father says that when he speaks French with a "good" accent it makes his mouth hurt.

When I find myself saying "they", it almost always becomes "they're", removing the requirement to stretch my lips apart for the long-A sound. Either that, or it slurs with the next word, for example "They went to the store" becomes more like "The' went to the store". These same corruptions might happen with "ey" eventually--but while it's a fresh new word, that makes it troublesome to corrupt right off the bat ... and without the consonant at the beginning to leave and throw out the rest ... it just adds further complication to the mess.

Same reason that "heir" isn't a very common word, especially colloquially. Spelling is weird and pronunciation difficult.

Regardless, it's not that I don't agree with you that it'd be nice, I just don't see it happening. Definitely not now, and because not now, likely not in the future, either.


p.s. while on the topic of atrocious English pronunciation, have you ever read The Chaos? It is pure hideousness, with every single bizarre pronunciation in the English language. It's difficult for me, a native speaker, to wade through it! Good luck ;-)

[Example: "Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse." pronounced "sowndz like korps kore hors and werse".]

[ Parent ]
space age engineers (none / 0) (#84)
by kaatunut on Wed Oct 03, 2001 at 04:39:36 AM EST

Ah, that might be so... I had no idea you're really that lazy :) then again, my pronounciation of Finnish is much lazier than my english, so I'm thinking it might be universal... I actually sometimes prefer to think in english when I want to think clear; my native language makes me all sloppy.

As for Chaos, well, I read the first two verses and my throat started to hurt :P seriously, I don't know how you manage your language. At least if Germany had won we'd be speaking a language with some grammar and structure... ;)

there's hole up in the sky from where the angels fall to sire children that grow up too tall, there's hole down in the ground where all the dead men go down purgatory's highways that gun their souls
[ Parent ]

The plural enclitic suffix (none / 0) (#64)
by HereticMessiah on Sat Sep 29, 2001 at 11:04:07 PM EST

The enclitic 's is supposed to have came from a formula for forming plurals that used to exist in English. It actually has something to do with this discussion, so I'll mention it.

When `he' was genderless, possession would be indicated using phrases like `Mary his coat'. The pronoun eventually got eroded down to an eclitic suffix, leading to our modern day posessive form.

Of course, IANAPL (I am not a professional linguist)...


Disagree with me? Post a reply.
Think my post's poor or trolling? Rate me down.
[ Parent ]
Hmm, I thought it was from the genitive case? (none / 0) (#66)
by brion on Sat Sep 29, 2001 at 11:37:00 PM EST

-es for many nouns, eventually worn down to -s except when following an s/z. At some point it generalized to all nouns, and got used just at the end of a noun phrase, rather than agreeing across the noun and its adjectives.

cf. the similar -s possessive ending in German for the late stage, and the -is genitive ending for 3rd declension Latin nouns and adjectives for the early stage.

(I could be wrong here, but I've never heard the "his" theory before, but have heard the genitive case origin. See this page from the materials for an Old English course.)

Chu vi parolas Vikipedion?
[ Parent ]
Possible, but... (none / 0) (#67)
by HereticMessiah on Sun Sep 30, 2001 at 01:57:34 AM EST

...it explains neither why the suffix is enclitic or why the word order changed. The `possessive pronoun' theory is quite widely accepted, in fact.

I should really have looked for some articles to back up my argument. Sorry about that. I'm just gone out and found one that explains its origins better than I did.


Thanks for the link. I've been looking for an Old English grammar like that for a while now.

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[ Parent ]
Interesting... (none / 0) (#71)
by brion on Sun Sep 30, 2001 at 06:15:54 PM EST

This sounds plausible presented that way -- and of course there's an analogy link between the -s genitive and the 's abbreviated his.

Chu vi parolas Vikipedion?
[ Parent ]
As far as I know, (none / 0) (#72)
by Dlugar on Sun Sep 30, 2001 at 07:25:59 PM EST

The apostrophe-s ending did originate from the original case system of Old English, in particular the genitive case. The reason it is "enclitic" [it's not, really, it's case, even though that's the word I used] is because all case systems that I know of inflect the word based on case endings. "-s" was simply another case ending, in particular for genitive.

Strangely enough, according to that "his" link, hundreds of years ago people thought that this case ending was a contraction of "his" and therefore started putting an apostrophe in? How bizarre.


[ Parent ]
I think you're misunderstanding the article (none / 0) (#74)
by HereticMessiah on Mon Oct 01, 2001 at 01:28:23 AM EST

What it states is that because of the similarities between the form of the old genetive case and the new enclitic suffix, the encitic suffix completely subsumed the functionality of the genetive case. Therefore, the suffix is enclitic and not a case suffix.

Let's face it -- we're arguing over shades of grey. There's no need for this kind of pedanicism.

Anyway, the fact that the suffix isn't always used (or even needed to be used) to dentote possession is worth thinking of too.


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[ Parent ]
Your sort of misunderstanding the situation. (none / 0) (#63)
by HereticMessiah on Sat Sep 29, 2001 at 10:54:13 PM EST

The whole point is to have a 3rd person singular pronoun that can be used when the gender/sex (the two words are rather confused in English) of the referrant is unknown. As an example, `they' would never be used in the sentence you cited. In reality, the sentence would be: "They told Kari to stand watch and call out if he sees anyone. Not a long while passed when he spotted a strange figure at distance. He was about to shout 'halt! who goeth there!' to them (we don't know the gender of the stranger), at which point the grammar broke down and Kari forgot who he was shouting to and what." In spoken English, to use `they' and `them' as truly gender neutral pronouns like Finnish and Hungarian do would just sound odd. The ambiguity you refer to comes from the fact that both are used as plural 3rd person pronouns too. Nobody's saying that `he' and `she' would be dropped from the language, just that where gender is *unknown* a neutral pronoun would be used. K.

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[ Parent ]
If you use the same pronoun over and over... (none / 0) (#65)
by brion on Sat Sep 29, 2001 at 11:04:49 PM EST

things get difficult to comprehend, whichever pronoun it happens to be. That's why, from time to time, it's good to use nouns.

Chu vi parolas Vikipedion?
[ Parent ]
Greg Egan's Diaspora (none / 0) (#38)
by Lionfire on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 02:48:33 AM EST

I was actually quite happy with Greg Egan's use of ve as a genderless pronoun (with ver as the possessive form) in Diaspora. The artificial lifeforms in the novel are genderless, and so the new pronouns were quite well used.

Although it took a while to get used to, it was easy to read and pronounce, and was a nice merging of both the masculine and feminine forms.

That said, I think I'll just stick with breaking the rules and use "they" :)

[ blog | cute ]
new pronouns (none / 0) (#75)
by bowb on Mon Oct 01, 2001 at 05:04:40 AM EST

I read that same novel. It didn't take me long to get used to the new words.

Inventing a few new pronouns seems to me to be the best solution to the problem. It's a pity that it's so unlikely ever to happen.

[ Parent ]
One I've seen before (3.00 / 1) (#46)
by X-Nc on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 12:58:27 PM EST

In a polyamory group they tend to use "zhe" and variations of it to denote genderlessness. It's interesting.

Aaahhhh!!!! My K5 subscription expired. Now I can't spell anymore.
Gender Neutral Pronoun FAQ (4.00 / 1) (#50)
by jared on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 03:32:02 PM EST

This is a big topic on some sections of the net. Notably the sexuality oriented regions of usenet
(as differentiated from the pr0n regions).

Check out the Gender Neutral Pronoun FAQ or just fast forward to the good bits.

And if you liked that you might also enjoy the Alternatives to Marriage Project.

Lots of good info there. (none / 0) (#55)
by Dlugar on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 06:46:24 PM EST

I got quite a bit of good information from the GNP FAQ--it's long, though. I didn't use much of it in my article because I wanted to focus on mainly the history rather than current neologisms [the GNP FAQ takes it for granted that the generic "he" is bad and also that we should come up with an artificial third person singular pronoun to use]. Reading the Alternatives to Marriage Project now.


[ Parent ]
"He" is only offensive... (4.33 / 3) (#56)
by Kasreyn on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 07:48:16 PM EST

...To those who make it their business, their Grail, their life's work, to be offended.

Frankly, if I stop using "he" as an epicene (which I always have), people will continue to be offended by things I say. If we cave in and modify the language until it is impossible to offend ANYone with it, we will wind up with a politically correct MUSH in which it is impossible to express any creative thought. Most of these "offended" people are only in it to magnify themselves and feel grand and victimized. That doesn't impress me, and it's not a good enough reason for me to change a language I've spent my whole life mastering (English).

Reasoning, logical adults UNDERSTAND that "he" can be taken to mean "he or she", without the linguistic derivations and definitions and history lesson. We understand because this is the way it has always been used, and native speakers of English (most Americans) all learned it the way everyone learns their native language - by hearing and seeing it used. The self-proclaimed feminists understand this also. They are only "offended" because it is convenient to draw attention to their cause, and as a way to feel powerful over others by forcing them to change their language.


P.S. I see no problem with inanimate objects being gender-neutral, since they are of course inanimate thus asexual. Plus we have a gender-neutral pronoun "it" for them. You don't see us calling bacterium "he", do you? Makes perfect sense to me, and I never understood where genders for inanimate objects in language ever came from in the first place... though many people still like the romanticism of calling ships "she". ;-)

"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
Everything is offensive to somebody.... (none / 0) (#57)
by Ialdabaoth on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 08:51:57 PM EST

... so there is little point in trying to please anybody but yourself and those you care for. Besides, what's the point of butchering a language to suit some college activist's irrational desires?

No point at all.

I often use 'she' as an epicene pronoun, unless I'm writing something formal, in which case I use 'one'. What happens? I end up offending somebody. I find it amusing really -- people get offended for such utterly trivial reasons. I could idly twist a lock of my hair and somebody would take umbrage.
"Act upon thy thoughts shall be the whole of the Law."

--paraphrase of Aleister Crowley
[ Parent ]

Well, personally, (none / 0) (#58)
by Dlugar on Fri Sep 28, 2001 at 09:49:04 PM EST

I think that using "she" as an epicene would be rather silly, since "he" historically means "he or she" [it wasn't just picked arbitrarily to be used as an epicene], and "she" came about particularly to refer specifically to female--hence using it as the epicene can be potentially confusing, while using a generic "he" is more generally accepted.

However, I certainly wouldn't be offended by it and, if after a hundred or two years "she" became the acceptable epicene and "he" referred specifically to males only, I can't say that I would mind in the least.


[ Parent ]
Gender isn't sex, sex isn't gender (4.00 / 1) (#60)
by isdnip on Sat Sep 29, 2001 at 10:40:37 AM EST

This is a concept that Anglophones have trouble with. Gender is a linguistic concept, a division of words into categories. It is very common in languages other than English. I suspect its main purpose is to clarify which adjectives, for instance, modify which nouns -- a masculine adjective refers to the masculine noun, in case there are two possible interpretations. Sort of a parity bit. When speaking one of these languages, you don't at all think of sex. In Spanish, el Lapiz is masculine, la pluma is feminine. Does anyone think that a pencil is more male than a pen? Of course not; there's little pattern to figure out what nouns get which gender.

Not every language uses engendered or sex-linked pronouns. Chinese, for instance uses ta to mean "he, she or it". I remember a book with a preface saying that "he" within the book should be read as "ta", because no exclusion is intended. Too bad authors feel compelled to do that. But then common usage is often mistaken for canonical meaning. How many Anglophones think that the honorific "Miss", for instance, only applies to unmarried women? (It is generic, semanticallay identical to the abbreviated form "Ms." and the female equivalent of "Mr.", wherein "Mrs." has a definite reference to a woman's use of her husband's name in lieu of her own.)

English doesn't have gender. We have pronouns, and those sometimes denote sex. A hundred years ago, the word "sex" tended to refer to the identification of a person as male or female, while "marital relations" was a polite term for what you or your parents did in bed. (This was a giveaway in the recent Jane Austen pr0n hoax.) "Gender" was an arcane word referring to foreign languages. Over the past forty years, probably as a result of oversensitivity, as well as a reaction to the use of "sex" as a synonym for "sexual intercourse", "gender" became a euphemism for "sex".

So Anglophones, seeing gender in pronouns, assume that the sexual denotations must really be significant. Thus the common gender use of "he" is misread as denoting maleness. But hell, it's merely a last vestige of gender in the language. As it happens, gender in pronouns (and most nouns, but indeed not young German girls) does correspond to sex, but that is not the purpose of gender, or for that matter always implied by gender.

Feminists should embrace this concept, because indeed as the original poster noted, it means that males, not females, are the ones short-shrifted by English. It's just that some are too quick to take offense (witness the famous punch line, "That's Not Funny!").

Indeed (4.00 / 5) (#61)
by psychonaut on Sat Sep 29, 2001 at 12:05:54 PM EST

Anti-disclaimer: IAAL (I Am A Linguist) and I do have formal training.

English has long accepted the use of "he" both as a gender-specific pronoun and as a gender-neutral pronoun. Speakers of the language are usually capable of recognizing the intended sense from context, as they do with most other words. But "he" is not a truly gender-neutral pronoun - many people believe that it implicitly excludes females, which has a detrimental effect on their status in society. Though one needs only examine existing gender-neutral languages (Hungarian, for example) to see that they do not prevent sexism, it is true that the use of the masculine pronouns can sound very inappropriate in some contexts. It is for this reason alone that their use should be generally discouraged. Consider the following: "The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day." Clearly the use of the masculine pronoun "he" can be problematic when referring to someone whose sex has not been explicitly stated.

Fortunately, there are many solutions to this problem, as the poster of the story has pointed out. None of them requires so drastic a change as introducing a new set of gender-neutral pronouns. One of the simplest modifications for phrases referring to a specific group of people is to recast in the plural. Thus, "If any student wishes to skip this assignment, he should think again!" can be changed to "If any students wish to skip this assignment, they should think again!" without introducing any significant change in meaning. The pluralization truly neutralizes the sentence, so gender is no longer an issue. In many contexts, a sentence like this could also be rewritten to address the second person (implied plural).

Another practice which already enjoys widespread colloquial use is the substitution of third person plural pronouns for third person singular ones when used with indefinite antecedents, particularly "anybody", "everybody", "somebody", and "nobody". While they may not conform to the rules of formal English, constructs such as "everyone has their fifteen minutes of fame" or "if anybody calls, tell them I'm not home" are commonplace; hence, they are some of the most useful and natural alternatives.

Finally, in some cases, gender-specific pronouns can be replaced with a combination of pronouns, changed to an article, or even eliminated. One frequently sees expressions such as "the person must exercise his right" changed to "the person must exercise his or her right", which is perfectly acceptable provided it is not overused. Where pronouns are not really necessary in the first place, as in "each student should hand in his assignment", they can be replaced with the definite or indefinite article: "each student should hand in the assignment". Many sentences containing conditionals can be easily rearranged to eliminate the pronoun - to use a previous example, "Any student wishing to skip this assignment should think again!"

Proponents of new pronominal systems who do not hypocritically condemn the sentence-rewording solution as difficult to learn may argue that it would not be able to eliminate "he", "him", or "his" in every case. They may be correct, but with the vast majority of gender-biased constructs that rephrasing can fix, surely the masculine pronouns' use as gender-neutrals can be reduced to such a level of infrequency that they will quietly pass into obsolescence within a few generations. It has been well-observed in the history of English that speakers will readily adopt euphemisms to replace outmoded and potentially offensive terms. This trend is already at work on sexist language - "mankind" is being replaced by "humankind", "fireman" with "firefighter", and so on.

Many the work-arounds discussed here are already being implemented, largely because they are intuitive and do not require any modification of the words themselves. Such natural language evolution occurs so quickly because it works upon word order and open word classes such as nouns and adjectives; any attempt to abruptly add to what has traditionally been a closed class, therefore, is not likely to meet with much success. Is it not permissible, then, to allow the trend of political correctness to follow its due course rather than forcibly introduce futile legislation of some Orwellian linguistic ideal?

Um, wow. (none / 0) (#62)
by Dlugar on Sat Sep 29, 2001 at 12:41:20 PM EST

Is it just me, or did you spend your entire comment summarizing my article, and summarizing my comments below? Heh. I think every single point you made as already been discussed and argued and made again, every single paragraph I see a mere echo of what I've already written. But it seems like you know what you're talking about--perhaps read through the article, then through the comments, and post again? Thanks,


[ Parent ]
Eh? (none / 0) (#83)
by psychonaut on Tue Oct 02, 2001 at 06:13:09 PM EST

Shush, you. :P

[ Parent ]
Your straw man sentence (none / 0) (#70)
by Jonathan Walther on Sun Sep 30, 2001 at 05:52:19 PM EST

You used as an example the sentence: "The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day."
You claimed this showed how problematic use of the masculine pronoun is.

A true English speaker never would have said it like that. It would have been said like this: "The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or as she pulls on her panty hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day." As with plurals, when the context makes sense, you switch to the specifically feminine gender.

(Luke '22:36 '19:13) => ("Sell your coat and buy a gun." . "Occupy until I come.")

[ Parent ]
A deliberately-contrived example. (none / 0) (#82)
by psychonaut on Tue Oct 02, 2001 at 06:12:22 PM EST

Perhaps I should have been more precise in my explanation for that sentence. That contrived example is what results from stringent application of English's (former?) "use 'he' for an indefinite referent" rule. The whole point of my comment is that one can find a happy medium between the two extremes of always using the masculine pronoun, and coining and using a gender-neutral pronoun.

[ Parent ]
You can't win... (5.00 / 1) (#77)
by jet_silver on Mon Oct 01, 2001 at 12:05:24 PM EST

you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game.

So what the hell. Use the neuter "it". There was a whole lot of 'degenderization' of nouns and then there was a long time where someone was deciding what nouns were 'appropriate' degenderized nouns. IIRC one of them was 'manhole'. The suggested 'personhole' was held (again I don't remember by whom, but somehow it stuck) to be an inappropriately degenderized noun. The logical next step, calling it a 'thinghole', was not taken, the opposing debate teams threw their hands up in disgust, and it's still a 'manhole'.

"Will the chairthing strike its gavel and call the meeting to order?" Accurately degenderized, but one gets a picture of a Morlock running a conference. Perhaps that's as it should be.

"What they really fear is machine-gunning politicians becoming a popular sport, like skate-boarding." -Nicolas Freeling
The Epicene Pronoun | 88 comments (83 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
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