Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Another Preface That Mentions Sexy Usage!

We of mild bloggers here perhaps garner a reputation as being rather unbiasedly pro-Dawkins in the who-is-your-favorite-contemporary-evolutionary-theorist sweepstakes, but, as has been mentioned on the blog before, Dawkins, at least back in the 80s was what the kids today would call a "douche" when it comes to gendered pronouns in English (though, in just re-reading the quote in question whilst seeking out the below-mentioned-there-linked, he's more apologetic than I generally give him credit for in casual remembering (but he's still a "douche")). Which is, like, totally not cool. The post there-linked will remind you of a few other instances of prefatory matter on the subject, which raged in the 70s and 80s.

Well, I just stumbled across another prefatory note about gendered pronouns in Paul Teller's Formal Logic Primer (that's right, I've finally gotten to that point in my life where I feel like it's necessary to read a primer in formal logic--I suppose many folks out there, upon approaching their 28th personal new year, have experienced a similar thing). And it's always refreshing to me when people are on the correct side of the argument:
Throughout I have worked to avoid sexist usage. This proves difficult with anaphoric reference to quantified variables, where English grammar calls for constructions such as 'If someone is from Chicago he likes big cities.' and ' Anyone who loves Eve loves himself.' My solution is to embrace grammatical reform and use a plural pronoun: 'If someone is from Chicago they like big cities.' and 'Anyone who loves Eve loves themself.' I know. It grates. But the offense to grammar is less than the offense to social attitudes. As this reform takes hold it will sound right to all of us.

So way to go Paul Teller, for totally not being one.


Blogger Don said...

Did you guys already reference this New York Times bit?


Upshot is that using the plural pronoun universally was fine until someone decided otherwise in a grammar book in 1745. I've been using it as justification for using "they" this past year, although our proofreader keeps "correcting" it in my proposal drafts.

6/29/2010 3:37 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

I think the singular "they" is by far the best gender-neutral pronoun. (I'm not crazy about "themself.")

Unfortunately for some of us, it's one of those solutions you can't apply in copyediting, because too many people object to it. Heck, I was even taught to avoid rewording any sentence in a way that puts a preposition at the end. Every editor knows it's actually OK to do it, but too many authors will complain about it because they think it's wrong. (Supposedly.) Ideally they'll do it elsewhere in their manuscript, and I'll take that as a green light.

6/29/2010 5:55 PM  
Blogger nate said...

You know, I read that On Language column's "William Safire is on vacation" note before I put together that it was written before he died, so my first reaction was, "Wow, that's a really inappropriate way to put it".

That piece didn't come up in our earlier pronoun discussions (here, here, here) but for my part I'd previously picked up from somewhere that "they" used to be an accepted, all-purpose option, and it's my favorite too. Trying to make up a new word just seems futile.

In general what I'm wondering right now is whether this pronoun issue is actually an issue in spoken English as well as written English -- I'm finding I have a hard time figuring out whether and when I tend to use "he" or "they" in speech -- since I think language as it's actually spoken is supposed to be pretty resistant to prescriptive rules.

6/29/2010 8:36 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Spoken rules are a bit tougher to splice out. I had the recent opportunity to pay attention to the way I talk while teaching my summer course, and specifically worked to avoid defaulting to "he," which at this point is pretty easy for me since it's been a bunch of years that I've been aware of it. It's pretty easy to get used to saying "he or she" (and rotating which comes first).

The more difficult one--and Jack has talked about this (not sure if he's blogged it)--is eradicating using "guys" to refer to a co-ed group of folks. Like "Alright guys, let's get started." The solution I've found is to adopt "y'all" into my language, which works fine in Florida, since we get trickle-down South stuff, but may not fly elsewhere (I tested "yinz" but it took too much "I'm from Pittsburgh"ing, especially since I don't have the yinzer accent). And since I've, over the years, mangled the way I pronounce a bunch of other words, the "y'all" is homogeneously heterogeneous.

Another one, though this is only tangentially related, is that I've been working to replace the word "person" with "human" in my speech and writing, as if to remind these device-laden creatures what we actually are.

6/30/2010 10:56 AM  

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