bristle at the frequent use of the words “man” or “mankind” to mean the
human race. This seems to imply that the basic human is male, and that
women are subsidiary. This concept is also embedded into English grammar:
we use he, him, and his for some (indefinite) person of either
sex--a built-in gender bias that has vexed my writing for years. I’m grateful
to Webster’s lexicographers for showing me ways around this problem.
I recently upgraded to the (1999) tenth edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary from my previous 1973 version. I also got Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage--it’s detailed and sensible, sometimes funny and irreverent. It describes a living and flexible language, not a rigid set of rules to which writers must conform. We do need discipline along with flexibility--writing improves with good grammar and adherence to wise stylistic dictums like “Omit needless words.” But we needn’t follow rules blindly or feel constrained by them if they don’t help us communicate. As the Merriam-Webster scholars say, “...meaning should come first.”
Wanting to root out sexism from my mind and writing, I asked Webster’s: How can I use English without gender bias?
First, we must understand the problem. Consider this: “Everyone should get their shovels.” We speak ever thus, and no one has a problem with it. But in writing, the internalized voice of our stricter teachers says it’s wrong. Indefinite pronouns like everyone and everybody are singular--we say “everyone goes,” not “everyone go.” Strunk and White’s concise and otherwise wonderful classic The Elements of Style says simply to “use the singular pronoun”--so we think we must write “Everyone should get his shovel.” If you object, then you’re either stuck with a clunky “his or her shovel” or you can register a protest by writing “her shovel”--either way possibly breaking the flow of your work and distracting your reader.
How did we get into this bind? The Merriam-Webster scholars affirm that after indefinite subjects like anyone, each, everybody, nobody, no one, and anybody, the traditional pronoun “is the masculine third person singular, he, his, him.” They continue: “This tradition goes back to the 18th-century grammarians, who boxed themselves into the position by first deciding that the indefinite pronouns must always be singular. They then had to decide between the masculine and feminine singular pronouns for use in reference to the indefinites, and they chose the masculine (they were, of course, all men).” Webster’s scholars give many examples of this standard usage, but also show how it can lead to absurdities--such as a quote from a New York politician who said that “...everyone will be able to decide for himself whether to have an abortion.”
The Dictionary of English Usage discusses the belief that the lack of a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun is an “annoying gap in English vocabulary.” Special new words have been proposed--thon, nim, hiser, and others--but none have caught hold. Such a solution might seem appealing, but getting millions to adopt newly-coined words is a far-fetched project. How can we fix our writing, right now?
One solution is to rewrite sentences to make the problem disappear. This often works, but the writing may suffer. Another solution is simply not to worry about it, and use the plural forms they, them, and their as we commonly do in speaking. The Dictionary of English Usage dramatically clarifies the validity of this solution. It notes that while everybody and everyone are grammatically singular, they are notionally plural. They’re singular in form, but their meaning is plural, and “their natural tendency is to take singular verbs and plural pronouns.” Thus, “Everyone should get their shovels” is completely correct. Merriam-Webster’s scholars write that “The plural pronoun is one solution devised by native speakers of English to a grammatical problem inherent in the language--and it is by no means the worst solution.” They quote abundant examples of this usage in respected English writing going back to Chaucer and Shakespeare, and including Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and The New Yorker magazine. Furthermore, “...you have a choice: you can use the plural pronouns when they seem natural and you can use the singular pronouns when they seem natural.” I even like “his or her shovel”--but only occasionally.
Most of us probably don’t mean to be sexist, so it’s unfortunate if our language sometimes steers us that way. But it’s nice to know that spoken English already often uses a language of equality that the stuffy grammarians sought to banish. As we grow more into true equality, our language will further evolve to reflect and sustain our progress--we and our words go together.
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