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One for all of us

Please note: This page is a read-only archive of messages posted in the Word Fugitives conference of Post & Riposte.


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Topic: 2) One for all of us (1 of 13), Read 109 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Barbara Wallraff (msgrammar@theatlantic.com)
Date: Wednesday, March 10, 1999 09:22 AM

Toni Panetta, of Los Angeles, California, writes: "How about a solution to the perennial he/she his/her singular, nonsex pronoun problem in literature? My thoughts: xe/xel (no gender association involved in spelling or affiliation). It would be ever so much easier to read:

'When a college student first arrives on campus, xe doesn't know whether to hit the parties or the frat houses first; conveniently, they're frequently one and the same.'

Instead of:

'When a college student first arrives on campus, he/she doesn't know...'

Or:

'When first arriving on a college campus, one doesn't know whether to hit the parties or frat houses first...'"


Bless you, Toni, for not just coming out in favor of "a college student ... they...." It will drive us all crazy trying to figure out what a pronoun's antecedent is if that ever becomes standard English.

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (2 of 13), Read 96 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Bob Hanford (bobhanford@cmagic.com)
Date: Wednesday, March 10, 1999 10:10 PM

Toni,
I think xe/xel is the best idea anyone has come forward with thus far. Tremendous.

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (3 of 13), Read 97 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Dan Dillon (ddillon1@shrike.depaul.edu)
Date: Thursday, March 11, 1999 09:24 AM

Barbara writes:
"Bless you, Toni, for not just coming out in favor of 'a college student ... they....' It will drive us all crazy trying to figure out what a pronoun's antecedent is if that ever becomes standard English."

I'm afraid this construction is used widely enough these days to qualify as standard. Famous as it is, the quest for inclusive, gender-neutral language is a red herring.

Note to Toni: Are you one of those people who dislikes the use of "whose" as a referrent for inanimate objects?

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (4 of 13), Read 91 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Barbara Wallraff (msgrammar@theatlantic.com)
Date: Thursday, March 11, 1999 04:46 PM

Dan, you're scaring me. I'll grant you that "a college student ... they" is very common in colloquial usage; it's what people say. But "standard" (as I'm sure you know -- I'm just mentioning it to remind everyone) referring to English means accepted usage, sanctioned by dictionaries and so on. And the singular "they" ain't standard! My American Heritage Dictionary calls it a usage problem. Bryan Garner's new Dictionary of Modern American Usage recommends avoiding it. Etc. Please don't suggest that everyone but me -- and evidently Toni -- has given up on this. The very idea makes me feel bereft.


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Topic: 2) One for all of us (5 of 13), Read 86 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Glenn Werner (brshfire@frontiernet.net)
Date: Thursday, March 11, 1999 05:45 PM

I think in the case of many college students you can use "it doesn't know..."

Actually I don't care what the dictionaries say if you're talking about both sexes
you're talking plurally, (put them together it may even get exponentially so) as in,

'When college students first arrive on campus, they don't know...' (didily)

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (6 of 13), Read 61 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Dan Dillon (ddillon1@shrike.depaul.edu)
Date: Wednesday, March 17, 1999 04:10 PM

Barbara,

I don't want to scare you any more than I already have, but if my last post left you bereft (or bereaved, which I think is even more apt), this one is sure to cast the final blow.

Joseph M. Williams, author of many books on language and usage, including *Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace* (from which the following was excerpted), writes "For years, writers of English will have a problem with the singular generic pronoun, and to some readers, any solution will seem awkward [cf. s/he, xe/xel, etc.]. I suspect that we will eventually accept 'they' as a singular:

No one should turn in their writing unedited.

There is precedent. Our second person singular pronoun was once 'thou.' But in the fifteenth century, English speakers began to replace it with 'you,' originally strictly plural. The same thing could happen with 'they.' If that happens, some will predictably claim that the English language has surrendered all pretensions to precision."

Alas, all changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (7 of 13), Read 59 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Thomas J. O'Brien Jr. (to2004@aol.com)
Date: Wednesday, March 17, 1999 05:19 PM

Barbara:

I thought we senior citizens settled the problem fifty years ago......maybe the solution has been lost in the ages. What's the matter with "shim" and "hesh"?

Tom O'Brien

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (8 of 13), Read 57 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Barbara Wallraff (msgrammar@theatlantic.com)
Date: Thursday, March 18, 1999 09:20 AM

Tom,

I like "shim" and "hesh" -- they sound friendly and funny -- but could you please use them in a sentence or two? I'm not sure what case they're in.


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Topic: 2) One for all of us (9 of 13), Read 60 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Barbara Wallraff (msgrammar@theatlantic.com)
Date: Thursday, March 18, 1999 09:17 AM

Dan,

My feeling is that in your quote from Williams, the key words are "will eventually," in the sentence "I suspect that we will eventually accept 'they' as a singular."

I, too, see this coming. However, English usage being something that is decided democratically, according to how we each choose to speak and write, I'm going to exercise my right to vote against the singular "they."

For one thing, I never felt excluded by the generic "he." I understood from a very young age that the pronoun applied to any person, and I never took it personally that the generic pronoun wasn't "she."

For another, my full-time job is as the editor of other people's writing, and when I'm trying to straighten out a tangle in text that is discussing human beings, so that it will be clear and easy to read, I find it helps a lot for readers to be able to trust that the antecedent for "they" will be plural people already mentioned and the antecedent for "he" or "she" or "he or she" will be singular. When formal, standard English starts messing with that, it's going to get everybody confused.

In sum, arguing that the singular "they" is inevitable strikes me as a bit like saying it's inevitable that salmon will go extinct. It may be true, but please don't ask me to help bring it about.




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Topic: 2) One for all of us (10 of 13), Read 51 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Dan Dillon (ddillon1@shrike.depaul.edu)
Date: Thursday, March 18, 1999 01:12 PM

Barbara,

What kind of fish you eat for dinner is your business, but the singular and demotic "they" will be on everyone's palate.

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (11 of 13), Read 41 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Aaron Reneker (zanazarius@yahoo.com)
Date: Thursday, March 18, 1999 06:56 PM

Perhaps we could do as other languages (such as German, Spanish, et al) have done for centuries and add verb endings appropriate for genders. For example, instead of saying, "He took the plate from the usher," we would say "Tooke the plate from the usher"; or, in the case of feminine subjects, "She took the plate from the usher," would change to, "Tooka the plate from the usher." Verbs ending in an E must be changed anyway in several instances, so words such as make would need only be changed in the event of a feminine subject. "Createda the sculpture." On second thought, the preponderance of puns that would result would probably make the new verb forms too ridiculous to consider. Why then don't we just make everyone a neutral it? It works for the animals, so why not us?
(Tongue firmly in cheek, of course....)

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (12 of 13), Read 37 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Marty Smith (marty@moonrat.com)
Date: Thursday, March 18, 1999 09:49 PM

With all due respect to "xe" and "createda," the day an invented word or structure takes hold in the popular lexicon will be the day President Anita Hill give the State of the Union address in Esperanto.

"They" will win.

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Topic: 2) One for all of us (13 of 13), Read 35 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Dan Dillon (ddillon1@shrike.depaul.edu)
Date: Thursday, March 18, 1999 10:15 PM

"[T]he day an invented word or structure takes hold in the popular lexicon will be the day President Anita Hill give the State of the Union address in Esperanto." [sic]

Oh?

Exxon. I'm late, aren't I? E-mail. Brunch. Scuba. Kodak. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, wanna, gonna, getcha.

I do, however, agree with your pithy assertion.
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Topic: One for all of us (1 of 2), Read 39 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: Maximus Clarke (traveler@afn.org)
Date: Monday, March 15, 1999 12:13 AM

There have been previous proposals for a
gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun,
akin to "xe/xel." According to Paul Dickson's wonderful book _Words_, these include: "co" (coined by a writer named Mary Orovan), "e" (created by the Broward County, Fla. School Board), "et" (coined by Aline Hoffman of Sarnia, Ontario), "hesh" (by Robert Longwell, a professor at the Univ. of Northern Colorado, who also coined "hirm" to replace "him or her" and "hizer" to replace "his or her"), and "jhe" (invented by Milton Stern of the Univ. of Michigan).

Unfortunately--or perhaps fortunately?--none of these have caught on. They seem to me to be hothouse flowers, created by individual writers or academics but lacking broad appeal. In fact, I believe we already have a word to fill this gap: "they." Many Americans colloquially refer to hypothetical or indeterminate-gender individuals (not groups!) as "they" or "them"...e.g., "I don't know whether a man or a woman will be elected president in 2000, but I know they (the person elected) will face many challenges."

This bothers some linguistic purists (including my wife!), but I think the best solutions to "word fugitive" type problems come from the collective wisdom of the people who speak the language, not from imposed, artifical constructs. In fact, "they" as a (colloquial) singular form apparently has a rich history...I recently heard somewhere that there are citations in the Oxford English Dictionary for this usage going back some centuries! (I don't have an OED handy...maybe someone else could check?)

I recall reading years ago that "Ms.," which many believe to be a new construction, actually also goes back as far as a couple hundred years. Whether the problem be gender-related or otherwise, many "missing terms" can be found already circulating about in common usages.

Regards,
Maximus Clarke
traveler@afn.org

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Topic: One for all of us (2 of 2), Read 18 times
Conf: Word Fugitives, with Barbara Wallraff
From: E. James Lieberman (elieberm@earthlink.net)
Date: Sunday, March 21, 1999 04:41 PM

This issue of the s/he problem--non-gendered pronoun has come up among Esperanto users. In Esperanto, the suffix -in means female, e.g knabo = boy, knabino = girl (German root); viro = man, virino = woman (Latin root). Some folks thought there should be neutrality among roots, or at least have a male suffix or prefix. "ab-" was advocated by some as a male prefix. Thus instruisto= teacher; abinstruisto = male teacher, instruistino = female t. Incidentally, in Esperanto the prefix "ge-" means mixed-gender group (as in German), so gefiloj = sons and daughters, while gefratoj= siblings (note J=Y in pronunciation, and indicates plural as in Greek). --jl


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