Out of all of the decisions I’ve made during my time at the University of Michigan, by far the smart one was choosing to be an English Language and Literature major. I’ll be the first to admit that my disdain for certain kinds of celebrated literature won’t put me in the running for the “BEST ENGLISH MAJOR OF ALL TIME” award, but I like to think that I’m good at what I do.
There are times, however, that I think that I would be a much better editor than writer. Often I find that my so-called editor IQ dropps ay rite, and I make very simple misteaks. To make matters worse, it doesn’t improve during the drafting process when I make the mental switch from writer to editor. This is, more than anything, why editors exist; as T.S. Elliot said:
Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.
So you can imagine, I suppose, that I find it absolutely infuriating that my editor IQ reaches a Hawkingesque level when I critique the writing of others.
One of the biggest issues I encounter while editing is the fact that English doesn’t have a singular gender-neutral pronoun. Many people suggest the use of the words “they” and “their” as singular pronouns, and there have been examples for quite a long time on the semantic changes of those two words. Language is a constantly changing construct, and I don’t think that any language change is inherently bad. Indeed, if “they” and “their” became acceptable singular pronouns, I would welcome it.
However, there are still issues. Take, for example, the following sentence: “The student did his homework.” The pronoun in this sentence is “his,” referring back to the subject, “the student.” “His” is a personal possessive pronoun, which means that it acts as a marker of possession. In this case, the homework belongs to the student.
Now, imagine using “their” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun for this case: “The student did their homework.” This doesn’t make much sense to me. If I was to come across this sentence during an editing process, I’d have to find evidence in the context of the work to figure out if “student” was meant to be singular, or if it was a typo. I suppose a writer or speaker could use “its,” but this would also be incorrect because this is a word that isn’t applied to humans. For instance, you could say, “The dog ate its food,” but you couldn’t say, “The person ate its food.” There are several reasons for this, but I think the most simple answer is that English works to avoid dehumanizing constructs like that.
So, we’re still stuck with “The student did his homework.” When I see this sentence, I know this is normal usage. The word “he” (and its various forms) has been accepted as a general pronoun. My sensibilities, and I suppose most modern sensibilities, have difficulty with the use of “he” as a general pronoun. For one, it reinforces the idea of a patriarchal society (I mean, only men can be students, right?), but grammatically it seems to be much too specific based on the scant descriptive detail we have about the student. In other words, how do we know the student is a man?
I think that the use of “they” and “their” and other related forms is a good start toward creating a gender-neutral pronoun for the English language, but I don’t think it should be the ultimate goal. I believe that singular and plural pronouns are separated for a reason, and I’m not convinced that using the plural pronouns for the singular work without considerable confusion (though once it becomes widely accepted I’m sure that won’t be the case).
English is a remarkably flexible language. Some of my favorite words are relatively new, which include such portmanteaus as “scientifiction,” “glibertarian,” and “mupload.” From the Balloon-Juice Lexicon, a new favorite of mine is “Hoocoodanode.”
I ask, then, why can’t the users of the language (you, me, them, everybody!) just invent new words for it?