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The Straight Dope



The most needed new word in the English language must surely be a substitute for the "his/her" attribution, which forces you to either rewrite or use the awkward "his or her" (or, for those afraid of stirring up a feminist terrorist group, "her or his"). I am perplexed that our language is so flexible and yet no one seems to have solved this semantic problem. Is there a genius who has done it? If not, as our resident genius, will you give us a substitute? --B.C., Virginia Beach, Virginia

The trick isn't inventing a new word, Chico, it's getting people to use it. Some 80 new terms have been proposed, the first of them in the 1850s. But none of them has made the slightest headway in popular usage. In 1884 the composer Charles Converse proposed thon, thons, a contraction of "that one," with the th pronounced as in "they." It found its way into several unabridged dictionaries, but that was as far as it got. Other 19th-century proposals for he/she, his/her, him/her include ne, nis, nim; hi, hes, hem; e, es, em; ir, iro, im; and ip, ips (no, smartmouth, the objective isn't ooray). In 1912 the Chicago superintendent of schools proposed he'er, him'er, his'er, his'er's. She tried to get the National Education Association to adopt it, but no go.

The rise of the modern feminist movement set off a new round of linguistic invention, with identical (i.e., no) results: te, tes, tir; shis, shims, shim, shimself; zie (from German sie), zees, zim, zeeself; and so on. Most of these obviously are a play on the existing pronouns, but occasionally you see something like per, pers, short for the gender-neutral "person." Then you get comedians like the guy in Forbes magazine who blended "he, she, or it" to produce h'orsh'it.

Others, recognizing the futility of trying to invent pronouns, suggest we ought to make do with what we've got. One might say "one," for example, except that it strikes most Americans as stilted. You could try "it," as we now say of babies, but few do so with any enthusiasm.

There has been progress on one front: the use of "they," "their," "them" as third-person singular with indefinite constructions such as "anyone," "somebody," "each," "the person who," etc. This produces sentences like "Somebody has forgotten their hat," which purists find offensive. However, as sociologist Ann Bodine points out, singular "they" was in wide use by distinguished writers of English prior to the attacks of 19th-century grammarians, and its use in speech has persisted to the present day. Not only does it fill an obvious need, it has a precedent in "you," which long ago supplanted second-person singular "thou." Cecil will go so far as to predict that within a couple generations singular "they" in many instances will be acceptable in formal written usage.

But some gaps will undoubtedly remain. The remark "A person may find themself left high and dry" would probably pass unnoticed in conversation today, but few would say, "A doctor may find themself . . ." In such cases even the most ardent feminists fall back on the old standbys: rewrite to eliminate the pronoun, use plurals or second person, and so on.

In a personal or polemical work a writer can make "she" the default pronoun. For many years "she" was also used generically in discussions of teachers, who were predominantly women. But male teachers argued during the 60s that the "feminization of teaching" was partly responsible for the chronically low pay, and were able to get the pronoun changed. Women themselves sometimes object to the use of the generic "she"--for example, in business publications that invariably refer thus to consumers.

For what it's worth, you hear less and less of the old argument that "he" (and "man," for that matter) somehow "includes" women. Common sense suggests, and studies bear out, that when you see supposedly generic masculine terms you think first of males. But let's not pretend that the elimination of such problems would mean the end of sexist speech. As writer Deborah Cameron points out, the sentence "The man went berserk and killed his neighbor's wife" is unobjectionable on its surface. But stop to think: why "his neighbor's wife" instead of "one of his neighbors"?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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