I love grammar. Used correctly it makes our ideas, written or spoken, more easily understood. It tells us what sorts of words go where, and, in some cases, what words should be used in given circumstances. When I was in elementary school we learned to parse sentences, to draw diagrams that showed what — noun, verb, adjective, etc. — each word was and how it fit in to the whole. If that’s art, it was the only kind of art I’ve ever been good at.
Grammar is universal, though the rules change from language to language. It’s that universal quality, said Noam Chomsky, the linguist, philosopher, author and longtime teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that allows us to learn languages, a gift no other animal has. Though some scientists disagree with Chomsky’s theory that humans have an innate sense of grammar, there is research that seems to bear parts of it out.
All of which is a far cry from what got me started thinking about grammar in the first place. English grammar has no single-person, gender-neutral pronoun, and that can be a problem for a newspaper writer in this age of real or perceived gender bias at every turn.
Consider a simple sentence like this one: Your child is ready for school when “XXX” knows the alphabet. I was taught, as were most of the people I know, that when the gender of a person is unknown, use the word “he:” Your child is ready for school when “he” knows the alphabet.
That doesn’t cut it in today’s world, but there’s no substitute that’s any better. You can hedge your bets and use “he/she,” but that gets awkward if you have to repeat it more than once. You can use “they,” but that’s plural and the sentence talks about a single child. Our pronouns reflect both gender and number.
This isn’t a new problem. In fact, according to an article in The Guardian’s U.S. edition, the effort to find an English singular, gender-neutral pronoun goes back more than 150 years and has been unsuccessful so far.
Thus the midwestern American philanthropist and politician, Napoleon Bonaparte Brown, wrote in The Atlantic as far back as 1787 about the need for a “personal pronoun of singular number and common gender.”
English speakers have tried, more than once. In the mid-1850s, according to Dennis Baron, an English and linguistics professor at the University of Illinois, there was an attempt to replace gender-based personal pronouns with “ne,” “nis,” “nir” and “hiser,” a mouthful if ever there was one. The idea didn’t catch on.
Nor have other similar ideas. One that seemed about to gain a foothold was “thon,” the creation of Philadelphia lawyer Charles C. Converse in 1884. Thon made it into a couple of dictionaries and some writers actually used it, but it never gained wide acceptance.
Speakers of other languages haven’t done much better, either. The Swedes, for example, proposed the pronoun “han” in 1966 and again in 1994. Today, while the word is included in the official glossary of the Swedish Academy, its use is far from widespread.
Here, one answer to the problem has been to use “they” rather than “he” or “she.” That may be acceptable, and increasingly it is, but it’s jarring, just the same.
I have no scientific evidence for why it’s been so difficult to come up with and gain acceptance for gender-neutral pronouns, but I do have theory. Language is organic, I think. It adapts and changes over time. If that’s true, there will be gender-neutral pronouns someday, and perhaps not so long from now. They may morph from today’s pronouns, as some in the past apparently have done, or arise some other way.
In the end, after mulling through all this, I likely will continue to fall back on the old idea, “When in doubt, write around it.” If you’re unsure of specifics, in other words, don’t write as if you are sure. Where pronouns are concerned, that often means finding a way of writing a sentence that simply doesn’t include them.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org