“Their test result, s/he, he/she, his/her” And Other Abominations ©2009 Word-Caster
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Cultural influences on writing are not always positive. As a result of the drive to “de-genderize” discourse, the traditionally used masculine pronoun, “he” (and its siblings: “him, his”) which had traditional use as an indefinite substitute for, say, “a human” is now socio-politically toxic because it supposedly promotes a masculine dominated social order, which, to hear many husbands moan, is a myth. No longer acceptable is, “When a human first discovered how to create fire, he may have provided the spark that allowed mankind to begin to ascend to the technological heights of today.” The previous sentence is doubly heinous by today’s culturally warped standards. First, the more easily disposed, “mankind,” used for hundreds of years to refer to the human race without the slightest intentional offense has, for the same gender-neutral issues become, if used at all, the near silly, “people-kind.” But even in preparing this explanation, trouble looms, because even the word “human” contains the vestiges of the hated male dominance: “hu-man.” What to do? Hu-people? Hu-peop? Honest to goodness what to do with “woman” or “women”? Woshe? And what about “female”? Fewoshe? Woops! “She” has the hated letter combination, “h, e.” Horrors! This is what happens in a male dominated culture, everything created assumes the taint (some would suggest, foul odor) of maleness. The most abominable fallout from the linguistic PC police is the corruption of the use of the third person, plural possessive pronoun, “their.” A “respected” university instructor once told a group of aspiring creative writers that, “The student could not find their book,” is perfectly acceptable in order to maintain gender neutrality. Hogwash! The alternative, “his/her, as in “The student could not find his/her book,” is awkward and cumbersome. Solutions abound: 1) If the student’s name is known, then no real problem exists unless the proper name does not provide a clue to gender, “Roberta could not find her book.” If the student’s name is unknown, and therefore the gender is unknown, recasting the sentence solves the problem, “The student’s book disappeared,” or “The student’s book remained lost.” Other possibilities remain as well. If the tragedy of misplaced text books involves more than one student, then no problem exists, “The students could not find their books.” Sometimes writers (note the plural) create problems by expressing an idea in the singular, when the plural works just as well, maybe better: “Each respondent provided
(their, his/her) demographic information on the survey form.” This is awful, and a reasonable substitution could be: “Respondents provided their personal demographic information on the survey form.” A further consequence of PC’s hyper-sensitivity, is comprehension. If a sentence says, “The student could not find their book,” the actual meaning becomes confused. Does “their” refer to a group of people who collectively had, at one time, possession or ownership of a (class project album) book? Does the sentence mean that “the student” could not find the student's personal property? Also muddled is the traditional link of plurality between pronoun and antecedent (plural noun requires plural pronoun) and plural possessive pronoun modifying a plural noun ( as in, “her jacket” or “their jackets”). Here is an example from a well-meaning graduate student: “That can be a reason why the firstborn, especially did not feel championed by their mothers and spoke out clearly about the inequities they perceived in their parents’ behavior toward them.” What exactly does this mean? Could the problem be solved by simply making “the firstborn” plural? Perhaps, but perhaps, this is about a single individual, a firstborn. Who is to know for sure? And, here is a dispatch from The Times of London (07/27/09): “A European Arrest Warrant has been issued and authorities in every member state of the EU are obliged to detain her should she set foot in their country.” “Their” refers to “authorities,” and therefore, the last word should be “countries” to satisfy the dictates of number agreement. A serious and competent researcher of consumer psychology wrote, “A consumer may also choose a particular brand/product/service because it serves to express their personality or social status, or it satisfies psychological needs such as their inherent need for change.” “A consumer” has “their personality”? Perhaps this should be, “Consumers may also choose a particular brand/product/service because it serves to express their personalities or social statuses, or it satisfies psychological needs such as their inherent needs for change.” An equally correct rendition which avoids the dreaded, anti-PC, indefinite “he” but maintains the singularity link is, “A consumer may also choose a particular brand/product/service because it serves to express individual personality or social status or it satisfies a psychological need, such as the inherent need for change.” The bottom line of all this is that coherent expression is possible through careful consideration and without corrupting the necessary relationship between plural nouns and plural pronouns; between singular nouns and singular pronouns, and most of all without imposing cardiac arrest on those whose sacred mission in life is to eradicate gender-specific designations. Happily, with similar judicious attention to sentence construction, abominations such as “he or she, she/he, s/he, him/her,” etc. can become linguistically extinct from disuse.