Saturday, October 11, 2008

One of those essayists who are always worth reading, no matter what they're saying

Professor Anatoly Liberman takes up the issue of they/their/them as a singular gender-neutral pronoun on the Oxford University Press blog. He does not approve. Unlike most web commentaries on the usage, Liberman's essay goes into detail on its history. As usual, it's an interesting read. I have to thank Liberman for introducing me to a new proverb: "It's wasted labor to shut up a neighbor." Also for the wonderful Victorian understatement, "give a deliberate twist to verity."

I admit to being confused, however, by the distinction he makes between singular antecedents like "everybody," "person," and "someone," which can be referenced with "they," and antecedents like "tenant." What is the natural class that defines these boundaries? I think I can hear the difference, but I've learned not to trust my ear. What words qualify as the "similar examples" that Liberman challenges us to find pre-1965?

On another score, I have doubts about Liberman's claim that "They for a singular subject was introduced by those who wanted to rid English of sexism." When I read examples like "If a tenant has an eviction on their record, it does not mean they were a bad tenant," I recognize them as something I might hear or say in my hometown. My hometown is pretty far away from the state headquarters of antisexism in The Cities, as we call Minneapolis-St. Paul. I find it counterintuitive that the conservative folk in outstate Minnesota are taking grammar lessons from militant feminism. Some other gender-neutral devices like "he or she" or simply "she" are purely academic antisexism, but using "they" as a singular pronoun seems merely colloquial. It may not be everyone's idea of beautiful speech, but neither are sentences like "I seen him coming towards me." But that's the way some of us talk.

I would be curious to know what Liberman would identify as the criteria for preferred usage. I am open to the argument that truth and beauty should be among them. Truth, for example, would require that dictionaries not distort the history of usage. Beauty might require that they/their only be used for a singular antecedent when it can do so without calling attention to itself. I freely admit that "The traveler has nowhere to lay their head" sounds uglier to me than "A person cannot help their birth."

Parting shot: as I've said before on this blog, using "she" as the generic singular pronoun no longer bothers me. The first few times I read it, it "distorted the meaning of the passage" for me, but interestingly, it doesn't anymore. It's actually my favored solution, because it doesn't delve into the less-than-beautiful grammatical constructions that Liberman points out. Once one creates a new semantic association (she can = generic), it's smooth sailing. One could say that the distortion here is on the reader's end.


Pirate Jimmy said...

I side with Anatoly.

Pirate Jimmy said...

Also, can we not change the antecedents with specifically plural antecedents in most cases? For example, I think "A person cannot help their own birth" would be better said "People cannot help their own birth" and "The traveler has nowhere to lay their head" is better said "Travelers have no where to lay their head."

In the case of a specific, but unknown, traveler referred to only as "the traveler," I would rephrase "There is nowhere to lay the traveler's head" or "There is nowhere for the traveler's head to lay."

Pirate Jimmy said...

However, those last examples seem to assign the action to an unkown entity in "There is nowhere to lay the traveler's head" and it is given to the head in "There is nowhere for the traveler's head to lay." So if instead of replacing anything with he/she/it/they/their, maybe we should figure a way to assign an action to a noun a different way; or we need a non-gender-specific, non-dehumanizing word for "he/she/it."

Chaka said...

You would side with Anatoly.

I don't think much of the rephrasings you offer, but I agree that rephrasing is usually a good way out. Or you can always damn the torpedoes and use "he" as the generic pronoun.