Saturday, August 19, 2006

Oh, those darned third-person singular pronouns!

This turns into an even hotter topic than whether American English is legitimate or not. So, let me start off this series on how to avoid gender-specific language with the justification for avoiding it.

The bottom line is that you must use gender-neutral language to get published. Nonetheless, a decent respect for the opinions of all requires more of a reason than expediency.

So, let me mention at the top that language isn't a moral issue. It belongs to no one, let alone the monarch of the United Kingdom.

It isn't private property: it's community property. It is the property of all who speak it. The world over. THEY make the rules and change them at will. Not grammar teachers and pedants. Okay?

Writing is a service industry. So, to be profitable, it must please the customer.

Notice that native speakers of English use nonsexist language when speaking in mixed company. In fact, because of this habit, they usually do likewise whenever appropriate, even when speaking to all males.

This usage dates back to the 13th century. We see it in Shakespeare's line:

God grant everyone their heart's desire.

Why? Because it's instinctive to use the gender-neutral their instead of his. Just listen to yourself: you'll find that you use it all the time.

Why? Because it's simple courtesy to the half of your audience that is female. By using this inclusive language, you treat them like they are there. They won't like it if you don't. So, don't expect them to pay for a slight to their very existence.

And the argument that his means "his or her" doesn't hold water. Since a language is the property of its whole native-speaking community, THEY define the meaning of words, not professors of English. Tests prove that masculine pronouns and man-words mean "male" to native speakers of English.

Indeed, there was a time when they didn't. In the Dark Ages a native speaker of English would say that a certain queen was a "a wonderful man." Man meant "human" back then. But no native speaker of English would say that today, because man now means "adult male." Whether grammarians like it or not.

And the problem of meaning is far worse in English than in languages like French, in which all nouns still have gender. In English, only sexual beings are refered to with gender. So, in English, the word gender has stopped meaning "kind" and has come to mean "sex."

Since native speakers of English use gender-neutral language when they talk, why should they write according to different rules?

In my next few posts, I'll show how it's done. It may seem hard at first, but that's just due to your HABITS in writing. Once you get used to it, writing in gender-neutral language becomes second nature.

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