Isn’t it about time the English language got itself a gender-neutral pronoun? This was the clarion call from the Guardian last week — and when that particular clarion sounds, we must all stand to attention and cut out the sniggering. I assume the writer of the piece was moved to action having seen photographs of members of Isis pushing gay people from the tops of large buildings — and was deeply worried that each of the victims, tumbling to their deaths, might have been unhappy about being referred to as ‘he’ by wilfully unprogressive western journalists.
(Incidentally, with regard to these new acts of Islamist savagery, have you heard any complaints from the liberal left and the gay lobby — demands that something must be done, petitions, demonstrations, letters to the Times etc? Nope, me neither. The remarkable thing is that this viciousness from the dark ages has attracted no remarks at all from the bien-pensants. And yet tell them you’re thinking of going skiing in Sochi and they’ll be roused into a terrible fury, stamping their feet and gnashing their teeth, and Stephen Fry will come round to your house and cry in front of you, while gently stroking the floppy hair of his toyboy husband in a melancholic but consoling manner, and begging you, begging you, to go to Courcheval instead. But, hell, I digress.)
The gender-neutral pronoun is needed, we are told, for two reasons. First there are those among us, apparently, who do not consider themselves ‘he’ or ‘she’. As the Guardian writer put it: ‘There are people who self-define as neither, as gender-non-binary. To those who see gender as a construct, this makes perfect sense. But the English language fails to reflect it.’ Let me tell you, I have met people who say they see gender as the oppressive construct of a misogyn-istic society, and I have never got on with them terribly well. My fault, beyond doubt.
But there is the other more obvious and less politically loaded problem. Imagine for a moment that you are an Ofsted inspector, on site in the classroom of a school in Sunderland, and you wish to address the under-ten pupils directly. ‘If there is anyone in this form who feels trapped in their own bodies, or does not understand what lesbians do to one another once the lights have gone out, could he or she come and see me for tuition at the end of the lesson.’ That might be the grammatically correct form — he or she — but it is also cumbersome and ungainly. Whereas ‘they’ might be briefer, but grammatically dubious. So what to do?
As long ago as the late 1800s, grammarians with too much time on their hands grappled with this. Suggestions for a gender-neutral collective pronoun back then included thon, hiser, ip and le. None of them seem to have caught on — perhaps because only people who are certifiably insane considered that the English language required this sort of help or complication. The rest of us just muddled along. Language is dynamic and changing endlessly; if users felt that the lack of a gender-free pronoun was vital, then one would have been created — but quite the reverse. Over the years we have simplified our language instead of making it messier, and got rid of stuff like ‘thine’ and ‘thy’ and ‘thou’, which puts us ahead of the Germans. For my own part, I follow an inviolable grammatical rule whenever the absent gender-neutral collective noun is required. If the use of the word ‘he’, as opposed to the cumbersome ‘he/she’, will definitely offend the people to whom I’m speaking, then I always use it. As in: ‘If any member of the Guardian editorial board is in urgent need of locally sourced hummus, or goji berries, then he will find both comestibles in the fridge.’ On all other occasions I do what everybody else does and use ‘they’. The grammatical argument against ‘they’ seems to me utterly pointless. In the context in which it is being used, it does not imply a plurality. It implies a plurality of people only if you have spent too long indoors, terrified that the very language we speak is oppressing you. The rules concerning ‘they’ and ‘their’ are not inviolable, nor do they matter. You will not get your head chopped off or be flung from a tall building for using either in what some pedant might consider an inappropriate manner. No confusion will result in the supposedly inappropriate use of ‘they’ or ‘their’ — and that’s the point of language rules, isn’t it? To avoid confusion.
There are plenty of these so-called rules which should be ignored. And starting a sentence with a conjunction is but another one of them. And don’t get me started on split infinitives; I’ll boldly go whenever the hell I want, thank you.
However, the Guardian hacks are not alone. Northern Europeans, for similar political reasons, have been desperately trying — see what I did there? — to find themselves a gender-neutral pronoun for the past couple of decades. The Swedes particularly, but also the Germans. This cultural imperative has run in tandem with an exciting move to outlaw urinals. It is odious to these former steadfast members of the Hanseatic league that men are not required to sit down to urinate, but can instead do so very quickly, standing up. It posits an appalling inequality between the sexes, one which can be overcome only by making men take longer over their micturition, so that women — standing in a queue and looking baleful — are not transgressed.
So we abolish urinals and we do what some of the Swedish progressives wish us to do and make language entirely gender-free — and then everything will be OK, won’t it? We’ll all be the same! Such a magnificent first world delusion.
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