February 8th, 2011

Evolution of Language: Really Trying Here

Language is a constant work in progress, shedding antiquated words and usages while growing new ones. One reason I have so much trouble with this concept is that it is my job *not* to accept the newest of the new growth. When you edit formal instructional prose for a living, what’s being said on the street, no matter how popular and well understood, is not really acceptable on page.

At least, that’s my excuse. Another real part of my problem is that I am resistant to change in any form. I like the first thing I find that works, and see no reason to replace it until it becomes impossible not to. I listened to cassette tapes until they were barely available, I have the same furniture I bought in 1998, and I will not be purchasing a cell phone until Bell actually refuses to give me a land line (actually, I think we might be rather close to that last one).

But that doesn’t *exactly* fit my idea of language. I like cool new things if they serve a new purpose, express a new thought: I like slang, idioms, and phonetic spellings that better express how people actually speak. And since people don’t actually speak grammatically, I’m fine with writing dialogue in the choppy, elliptical way most of us actually converse. When something new *does* something new, I like that (ok, cell phones do many things that landlines don’t do, fine. Let’s just admit it: cell phones frighten me.)

What makes me editorially and personally insane is expressing something WE ALREADY HAVE WORDS FOR in a dumber way for no reason. Which is why I continued to repudiate “they” as a gender neutral personal pronoun for so long. It’s fine in quick casual speech, but to insist on making this a formal decision indicates to me, “I cannot spend 10 seconds recasting this sentence into the plural, or a specific example, or deal with a adding six characters with ‘his or her.'” I am snarky about this sort of lack of effort–the fault is not the English language’s.

However, someone recently told me that some trans people prefer to have the pronoun “they” applied to themselves in the singular. And some people don’t, by birth or by choice or by medical intervention, identify in the gender binary. Their lives are probably hard enough without an inappropriate pronoun or, even worse, “it.” Does anyone know if this is actually a common usage in the trans community, or outside it? If it is really being used, I guess it is good that the use of the singular “they” is so common now, that anyone being referred to as such wouldn’t necessarily feel singled-out or condescended to. It’s just something that sometimes gets said. I mean, in most contexts I still hate it, but it’s good to have the option.

8 Responses to “Evolution of Language: Really Trying Here”

  • AMT says:

    Interesting point, about the difficulties of reference for those who don’t fit into one gender or another.

    But. As for your earlier complaint about things we already have words for… while I see the position, I don’t quite see how that’s true in English in this case. (You knew I’d come bitching at you if I saw this post, didn’t you… ;)

    So: you have a sentence like
    ‘Everyone does what they want to do’.

    It’s not plural, right, because this is fine:
    ‘Every man does what he wants to do’.

    So then:
    ‘Every person does what they want to do’ is the gender-neutral singular version. Right? Ok.

    Am I right in understanding that you want this pronoun to be ‘his or her’ and not ‘they’? The whole point of this construction is that you are making a generalization, so you can’t use a specific example, and such generic sentences in English have pretty tricky singular vs. plural requirements, but anyway the ‘does’ shows us that here it’s definitely singular (that is, you can’t say *’Everyone do what they want to do’ as though it was plural.)

    So — if that’s all right with you so far… It just seems to me that requiring ‘his or her’ as the alternative highlights that English does NOT already have a word for this. The ‘or’ makes clear that you are trying to capture two pronouns with one.

    I’m not denying that there is a logically consistent position which says ‘we don’t have a word for this, so you just have to find a different way of expressing it using the words we DO already have’. The whole thing seems to me a question of style, and of codified standards, and I’m not against those.

    But if you are specifically tying those standards to a rationale about words we do and don’t already have — well, I don’t quite see how the argument goes through in this case. Perhaps I’ve missed something in the argument?


  • Kerry says:

    Wow– I’m looking forward to seeing where this online debate takes us. Rebecca?


  • Rebecca says:

    I don’t think I can win this argument–all your points are good, and history is going to prove “they” the victor anyway–but I just can’t resist this one:

    He and she are singular pronouns, each representing one possible manifestation of a member of the group named as “everyone.” Why can’t we just say that? It’s clear, it’s grammatically and logically correct, and it’s the words that our language has. “They” captures nothing that “he or she” doesn’t (except people with indeterminate genders, if we are working with that definition), and now it’s wrong. It’s still clear, it’s still easily understood, just ungrammatical. What’s the point?


  • AMT says:

    All I was calling into question was the claim that ungrammaticality here is driven by the fact that we ‘already have a word’ for this concept. We don’t, we have two words that cover parts of this concept. … We are all allowed things that drive us crazy, and what drives me crazy is grammar rules that are claimed to have logical support but don’t!

    Beyond that, I have no complaint. Edit out ‘they’ in favour of ‘he or she’ all you want! I cringe to think what you would do to my academic prose: I am always fighting journal editors about my, uh, exuberant punctuation…


  • Rebecca says:

    Funny, I try to act like grammar should be logical because I know other people will be more impressed, but I think I actually don’t care at all. I just want a rule I can follow–any rule–and then I want people to follow it with me. “Walk left, stand right,” only works most people do it.


  • August says:

    I am going to vehemently disagree with “his or her”. It’s even worse than “they” (which I don’t love, but am okay with using), if only because it feels clumsy.

    I like to look at it this way: English used to have a system of pronouns like the romance languages (but with an absolutely ridiculous system of suffixes and declensions), which included a bunch of stuff we don’t use anymore (thee and thou). The ones we dropped, however, were the singular/informal pronouns, and we *kept* the plural/formal ones. “Thou” is the singular, informal version of “you,” despite folks everywhere thinking otherwise. In the context of English evolving as a language, “they” can be looked at not just as a plural pronoun, but also a formal singular pronoun.


  • Rebecca says:

    Huh, that’s fascinating–I certainly didn’t know that earlier phase of the evolution. I am sure in a while (well, a longish while) I will have come to terms with using “they” in this way–right around the time CanOx adopts the singular as an alternative meaning (currently it’s listed as “disputed.”)


  • AMT says:

    speaking of which: i find it pretty hard to convince everybody on the edmonton escalators of walk left, stand right. i think it might be easier to convince them to use semi-colons correctly.


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