Word Nerd: Pronoun envy and the singularization of they

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Although the English language offers its speaker a large vocabulary, it is missing some useful words, particularly in the realm of referencing other people. For example, many are not comfortable with referencing their inlaws as Mom and Dad, yet are not comfortable with calling them by their first names. Some term of endearment more accurate than Mom or Dad would fill this void.

The English language also lacks a name for unmarried persons who share a

domestic and romantic relationship. Terms like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” sound adolescent, “lover” is too blatant, “lady friend” and “gentleman” are euphemistic and “significant other” is meaningless. “Partner,” “companion” and “cohabitor” are also euphemistic-sounding or inaccurate.

Québécois French has solved this problem by importing the English word “chum” to fulfill this vocabulary need. I suggest we exact retribution by appropriating a French word. My suggestion is “co-vivant.” English already uses the French term “bon vivant” to refer to someone who enjoys the “good life,” and putting the prefix “co” in front of “vivant” highlights the idea that one’s pleasures should be shared—the essence of a relationship.

English also lacks a neutral third person singular pronoun. Thus in the sentence “If anyone wants a cheeseburger ___ can have one,” we have a choice of using either the words “he” or “she,” in which case we may be making an incorrect statement as to gender; or we can use the word “they,” in which case “they” is seemingly not in agreement with its singular antecedent “anyone.” Saying “he or she” solves this problem but its usage is somewhat cumbersome.

Contrary to popular opinion, the generic “he” is not a long-established usage in the English language. It was not until the 18th century that this rule appeared in English grammar books and it was not until the 19th century that the rule became entrenched. In 1850, an act of Parliament in England gave official sanction to the generic “he.” Parliament ordained that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.”

As language is primarily a tool to communicate, the generic “he” is clearly faulty because it provides false or misleading information about the sex of the referents. If one says “Everyone on the choir raised his voice in song,” one is giving the impression that it is an all-male ensemble.

Many languages avoid sex designation in pronouns by having a word such as the Turkish o, which can refer to “he or “she.” Similarly in Finnish, hän can refer to a man or a woman. In English, over 80 words have been suggested to cover this situation, such as “te,” “ter,” “tem,” “hesh,” “co,” “shem,” and “thon,” but none of them has acquired much currency. When Webster’s International Dictionary, Second Edition was published in 1934, the word “thon” was listed but when the Third Edition was released in 1962 this entry was not included because hardly anyone had used this new pronoun in the interim. Languages are resistant to accepting new words that are central to their grammar.

What to do? For me, the issue is clear. Pronoun envy aside, the intent of language is to communicate, and by using “he” or “his” we may be imparting incorrect or misleading information about the sex of the participants. John McWhorter, in The Word on the Street, says that “they” is “singular as well as plural for the simple reason that the language has changed and made it so. The idea that “they” is only a plural pronoun is an illusion based on treating the English of 1,000 years ago as if it was somehow hallowed, rather than just one arbitrary stage of an endless evolution over time. After all, centuries ago a distinction was made between “thou” and “you,” with the former referring to a second person singular pronoun and the latter to a second person plural pronoun, but by the 17th century, “thou” fell into disuse in standard English.

I don’t expect everyone is going to agree with me on this issue. To each their own.

Howard Richler’s book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts was published in May 2013.


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