Monday, February 4, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            Watch carefully and spot the problem with the following sentence:

There was a fire in the hotel and each guest rushed to save his luggage”.

It makes perfect sense but, as a reader in the early 21st century, you are a little uneasy with it, aren’t you?

It’s all because of that possessive pronoun “his”.

You are saying to yourself: “Unless all the guests were male, why is there no acknowledgement of the female guests?”

Strictly speaking, the sentence should read: “There was a fire in the hotel and each guest rushed to save his or her luggage”.

If you are really committed to gender equity in language, and don’t like the idea of the male coming first, you might prefer to say “her or his” rather than “his or her”, like those people who force themselves to say ostentatiously “women and men” rather than “men and women”.

Unfortunately “his or her” sounds very clumsy and holds up the rhythm of the sentence.

What, then, is the solution that the semi-literate have come up with in recent years?

It is the solution of pairing the plural “their” with the singular “each”.

There was a fire in the hotel and each guest rushed to save their luggage”.

But this violates meaning. If you have committed yourself to the singular by writing “each” (or “everyone”), then you are submitting to nonsense by suddenly switching your pronoun to the plural “their”. In the name of good manners, I urge you not to tell me that this usage is now canonised in some dictionaries and some publishers’ style-guides. I am fully aware of this fact, and take it merely as proof that at least some compilers of dictionaries and style-guides are semi-literate. “Their” is irrevocably plural.

I agree that we are now beyond the point where we can comfortably argue that “his” assumes “his and her”, although I would still make a case for “Man” as referring to the whole human race.

How, then, do we avoid this nonsense of misusing “their” while acknowledging both sexes in a sentence?

Increasingly in my own writing, I find that I avoid it by avoiding the use of the generic singular in the first place. Rather than writing the singular “each guest” in our sample sentence, I would write the plural “all the guests”, and so be justified in using the plural “their”, thus: “There was a fire in the hotel and all the guests rushed to save their luggage”. I tend to perform this manoeuvre if I am submitting a review for publication in a magazine or newspaper, where I fear some copy-editor might impose a “their” upon any generic singular.

And yet, for rhetorical purposes, the generic singular is very attractive. If I absolutely have to use it, I use “his or her”. But even I know this sounds clumsy.

Let’s acknowledge at this point that it is partly the fault of the English language. In other languages – languages which have gendered nouns – the gender of the possessive pronoun is determined by the gender of the noun it is modifying. In French “sa chaise” means either “his chair” or “her chair” because it is the word “chaise” that is feminine. “Son livre” means either “his book” or “her book” because “livre” is masculine. Same in German etc. etc. with such languages also using plural possessives if the modified noun is plural (“ses chaises”, “ses livres” etc.). But in English we have a system where nouns are not gendered and the possessive designates the gender of the possessor rather than the gender of the thing possessed.

How to acknowledge this while avoiding the illiterate “their”?

Years ago in a dusty classroom, an elderly male teacher told me that Robert Louis Stevenson had come up with a gender-neutral singular possessive, “um”, created from the fact that most Latin feminine nouns ended in “-a”, most Latin masculine nouns ended in “-us”, but most Latin neuter nouns end in “-um”.

Thus, including the male and female singular without violating the rhythm of the sentence, Stevenson could have written: “There was a fire in the hotel and each guest rushed to save um’s luggage”.

Regrettably, I have not been able to track down the Stevenson piece where this was proposed, but personally I think it is the ideal solution. It allows me to use the generic singular with appropriate rhetorical force without either submitting to illiteracy or failing to acknowledge both sexes.

I can think of another use for “um”. It is an excellent way of disguising the gender of somebody when you do not wish to reveal it. For example, I could write such a sentence as: “An irate novelist complained about my review of um’s novel.” This would leave you, as I would want you to be, unsure whether I was referring to a male or a female novelist. There are occasions when this stratagem is useful.

Um” is sometimes a space-filler and suggests hesitancy and uncertainty. But I have no hesitation about the usefulness of this gender-neutral pronoun, and will henceforth use it whenever the inappropriate “their” is to be avoided.

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