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Rethinking the indeterminate masculine pronoun

Posted: Mon Apr 07, 2014 1:23 am
by Erik_Kowal
The Guardian offers its latest contribution to the debate regarding the use of the singular 'their' and related questions.

" 'He' as a catch-all term for 'he or she' is an annoying bug of the English language", writes Rebecca Gowers, "but Ernest Gowers, my linguist great-grandfather, used it happily": ... est-gowers

Re: Rethinking the indeterminate masculine pronoun

Posted: Mon Apr 07, 2014 9:27 pm
by Phil White
From the article:
... It also put paid to the singular "they", which, even as it promises to solve one difficulty, creates another. (Consider this sentence, taken from the Guardian: "Were you hiring a manager for a small chain of discreet luxury business hotels, you would want them to look like Tony Gilroy." Quoi?)
I am so used to reading and writing the singular "them/their" that I can no longer remember when the above sentence would have struck me as peculiar in any way. Nope, not even when the reference is clearly to a masculine embodiment of a manager.

Outside the dark rooms thick with the fug of pompous outrage that real people in the real world have long since moved the language in ways the occupants do not approve of (sic), good speakers and writers simply get on with communicating well and efficiently using the tools that modern English gives them.

Grammarians and those who pen style guides can ponder and pontificate as much as they wish; it is the people on the Clapham omnibus who will speak the last word. And they have spoken long ago. We have used plurals instead of the generic "he" and "their" as a singular possessive and "them" as a singular objective for several generations already, probably a lot longer.

It really is time to move on, folks.

Re: Rethinking the indeterminate masculine pronoun

Posted: Tue Apr 08, 2014 1:38 am
by Erik_Kowal
Many of the umbrage-takers regularly break the rules they explicitly deprecate. Take a look at the tuttings from commenters responding to stories like this one, and you'll see what I mean.

Additionally, the naysayers disagree among themselves where to draw the line regarding the usages they disapprove of. Given such lack of consistency, and no underpinning rationale framing their preferences, their protestations amount to no more than a narcissistic cacophony emitted by supercilious ignoramuses.

Fortunately, as you point out, Phil, in what generally passes for 'real life' few people take them seriously. But there remains the issue that many educators don't seem to have 'gotten with the program' and are still applying marking criteria that hew to the line of the old-fashioned prescriptivists, which both does a disservice to the students they are supervising and helps to transmit some of the old nonsense to yet another generation. The main reason they can still get away with this (or so it seems to me) is that parents who want their children to prevail in the competition for jobs, college places etc. think that conformity to those old notions (which most of them were themselves also brought up to accept) minimizes the risk of their kids losing out.

Re: Rethinking the indeterminate masculine pronoun

Posted: Tue Apr 08, 2014 2:10 am
by Ken Greenwald
Erik and Phil, Thanks for raising, and in my mind putting this issue to bed. My use of the singular ‘their’ and ‘they’ has always been tinged with feelings of guilt that I was breaking the rules and I had never gotten around to checking into it and just assumed it was ‘illegal.’ Glad to now find that it’s not so regarded by those whose opinion I respect.

Ken – April 7, 2014

Re: Rethinking the indeterminate masculine pronoun

Posted: Tue Apr 08, 2014 12:00 pm
by Phil White
That said, there are still issues. Erik has raised the spectre of the linguistic equivalent of the masonic handshake, which is a social and cultural issue rather than a purely linguistic one.

There are others that are purely linguistic, and invariably involve considerations of clarity. Take the following couple of examples:
In any given project, the role of the project manager is crucial in this respect. They are responsible for all organizational matters ...
In the context of an individual project, there is a single project manager, and the switch to the generic plural is lumpy, but acceptable. Other formulations would probably be more felicitous. Indeed, simply using the singular "project manager" in the first sentence, the plural "project managers" in place of "they" in the second sentence and "they" thereafter would undoubtedly relieve the linguistic tension.

But there are occasions where the plural really does not work.

I had an example recently in which I was writing about the legal responsibilities of two individual persons, namely the driver of a truck and the person who loaded the truck (the "loader").
The loader and the driver have similar, but distinct obligations.
The loader is responsible for ensuring that the truck and the load are safe to use on the roads. (She/he/they???) must ....
(Her/his/their) duties include ...

The driver is responsible for ensuring that the truck can be driven and operated safely at all times. (She/he/they???) must ....
(Her/his/their) duties include ...
Because we are talking about two (and precisely two) parties, I found the plural slightly ambiguous, I really needed to keep the singular pronouns to stress the individual and personal responsibility of each party.

In this case, combinations of impersonal constructions (it is the responsibility of the driver to ensure ...) and repetition of the noun worked just fine.

But at some point during the translation, I suddenly realized that the problems I was having were not with the English language. They were with the original German I was working from. The way in which the German was formulated was forcing me to see the issue as a problem.

Were I to have formulated the content of the entire passage myself from scratch, the issue would not have arisen (I would probably have used bulleted lists of obligations in this instance. And yet, it almost immediately crossed my mind that that approach actually loses something. Not using a singular pronoun (he/she) actually reduces the sense of individual and personal responsibility that I wanted to achieve.

I stuck with my initial solution, but later began to realize how I might have penned the passage myself.
The loader and the driver have similar, but distinct obligations.
If you are the loader, you are personally responsible for ....
In the specific context of a text aimed at people involved in the trade, this would have worked just fine.

Ultimately, if you genuinely accept the principles of equality, your language will naturally reflect that mindset, and you will not have problems with gender-neutral formulations. If you do not, you will struggle. My struggle with this translation was to reformulate a text that was underpinned by the (largely true) assumption that drivers and loaders are generally men anyway. Had I formulated the text from scratch, there would have been no such assumption, and I would not have needed to reformulate.

The very notion that an utterance needs to be reformulated to be gender-neutral actually says more about the attitude of the speaker than it does about the English language.

Re: Rethinking the indeterminate masculine pronoun

Posted: Tue Apr 08, 2014 12:40 pm
by Erik_Kowal
That example illustrates not only the problems involved in formulating gender-neutral language, it also suggests how impossible it would be for a machine-translation algorithm to identify the nub of the issues embedded in the source text and then to convey the appropriate tone in the output. What seems on the surface to be a reasonably straightforward exposition actually requires some sophisticated interpretation of cultural norms and values to produce a successful translation.

Re: Rethinking the indeterminate masculine pronoun

Posted: Fri Apr 11, 2014 9:11 am
by Edwin F Ashworth
All words are infinitely polysemous.

And all grammar questionable.

In other words, WiZ had it right all along.