Sunday, January 26, 2020

Education Time! “They” vs “he or she” vs “He/she/they” vs...

Gender neutral language is not about “not offending folks because everyone ie so easily offended these days.”  It is about recognizing that our world is much more complex than we have considered, and including those who were excluded.

The old “he or she” constructs we use at least admitted that “he” really didn’t cover all the bases once our culture granted women some equality, but it still assumes a binary gender model, something we know is incorrect.  Gender is a bimodal distribution, with peaks near the cultural standard male and female genders, but plenty of space in between and outside.

There is an easy fix, fortunately.  In 1275 the word “they” was first used as a singular indeterminate pronoun, and by the 14th century the genderless term was in common use.  It wasn’t until 1745, in “A New Grammar”, that the use of “he” to refer to a person of any gender was introduced, with some heavy rationalization about it being related to the genderless original sense of the word “man” in Germanic languages.   While considered grammatically correct, the genderless “he” may also be considered a violation of gender agreement.

The construct “he or she” is a clumsy attempt to recognize that “he” and “man” really are not considered genderless, and to try and de-weaponize the use of “he” in to exclude other genders.  The “Persons” case in Canada tried to deny seating female Senators around the reinterpretation of “he” as a gendered pronoun, as did the Massachusetts Medical Society’s refusal to admit female doctors, for example.

Now we have an even more diverse set of recognized genders, with California IDs and birth certificates following the lead of other states and permitting gender-neutral birth certificates and IDs, to cover any of a vast range of genders.

Similarly, we have the singular “they”, a pronoun on the shelf and ready for use since 1275!

Writers should use the singular “they” in two main cases:
(a) when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context and 
(b) when referring to a specific, known person who uses “they” as their pronoun.
 - APA Style Guide

It is not necessary or desirable to use inadequate constructs such as “he or she”, nor the very clumsy “he/she/they”, as “they” is already appropriate for an unspecified, unknown or irrelevant gender.  “He/she/they” is also annoying in that it privileges persons identifying with the normative binary genders by having their genders specially called out, in addition to the “they” used for unspecified gender.