By Elaine Viets
When I was growing up, men were men and he meant everyone, men and women both. Not any more, bud. Now we want gender neutral writing.
Too bad English lacks a pronoun that includes men and women both.
I believe words have power, and using he to mean both sexes disenfranchises women. I weasel around the dilemma by using they. That works, most of the time. When it doesn’t, I alternate between using he and she, giving separate but equal treatment to the sexes.
I’ve tried to sneak in their as a singular pronoun, but my publisher’s copyeditors put the kabosh on that. Copyeditors put the “cop” in editing, issuing citations for breaking the rules.
Recently, my copyeditor friend Les Weatherford addressed that issue. Most of this blog is stolen from Les.
Les doesn’t like the term sexist. That word “seems a bit harsh, a bit accusatory.” Here are Les’s thoughts on what he calls “a significant hitch in the English language.”
Consider this example: The president said success depended on everyone working as hard as ______ could.
How do you fill in that blank? “You can’t use it,” Les said. “That doesn’t refer to people. They? Grammatically incorrect. The subject of the clause is the singular.”
He proposes these options:
“Recast the sentence to make the clause plural: The president said success depended on everyone working as hard as they could. But the emphasis shifts from the individual to the group, which may not be the president’s intent.
“Use two pronouns: The president said success depended on everyone working as hard as he or she could. That reads fine in a single sentence, but becomes cumbersome when repeated over long passages.
“Follow the rule that many of us were taught in grade school: He equals he or she: The president said success depended on everyone working as hard as he could. Problem: Sexist.” Er, not gender-neutral.
“Be creative: The president said success depended on everyone working as hard as s/he could. Problem: It’s ugly. Says one writer: ‘That's just god-awful. It might even imply some sort of gender-reassignment surgery has occurred.’
“Rules were made to be broken. Go with the flow: The president said success depended on everyone working as hard as they could. Problem: singular subject, plural pronoun. Purists will beat you to a pulp.
“Persuade the academic authorities to come up with a neuter pronoun. Here is the sentence as it would be written with a pronoun set proposed in 1975 by Christine Elverson: The president said success depended on everyone working as hard as ey could.” Yeah, ey and eir. Look like typos, don’t they?
“Problem: Elverson proposed ey nearly four decades ago. When was the last time you used it in a sentence?” Never!
Les popped the question to writers and editors. He read their responses and came to this conclusion:
“The storytellers like their. Most formal writers prefer he or she or she or he but acknowledge that their probably is going to win and that they can live with that. The universal he hangs on with one vote. Nobody suggested creating a set of neuter pronouns.”
Les believes “their and they eventually will win. Only the people who say ‘It is I’ will stick to the universal he, and they are dying off day by day.”
Thank you for your research, Les. You’ve proved Les is more.
TMZ readers and writers, where are you on this issue?