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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Gender-neutral isn’t new | Gabe Doyle, Motivated Grammar

Where I've worked the past 30+ years, the arguments about gender-neutral language ended years, even decades, ago. I worked in local government in the Seattle, so perhaps we were more progressive on ending use of outdated words and terms. But I don't think so; all the well-known, mainstream style manuals on respected books on writing have also validated gender-neutral language for years.

So while I appreciate the thoughts and advice provided in this column, I'm a bit surprised it was necessary. Still, since blogger Gabe must hear arguments opposing gender-neutral language, I think he does a good job of responding to them. I agree with what he says:
I have two thoughts on this argument. The first: so what? Society progresses, and over time we tend to realize that certain things we used to think were just fine weren’t. The fact that we didn’t see anything wrong with it before doesn’t mean we were right then and wrong now. Furthermore, women have gained power and prominence in many traditionally male-dominated areas, so even if gender-neutral language had been unnecessary in the past (e.g., when all Congressmen were men), that wouldn’t mean it’s a bad idea now.
But my second thought is this: the very premise is wrong. Concerns about gender-neutral language date back far beyond our lifetimes.
Gabe goes on, commenting on use of freshmen, mankind, he or she, and person. He also comments on use of they as a singular pronoun. He writes:
I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but singular they — using they in place of generic he for singular referents of unknown gender — has been around a long, long time. Henry Churchyard’s site lists off examples spanning from 1400 to the present day, with a special focus on Jane Austen’s 75 singular uses of their.
I've also been promoting a transition to using they (and its variants as a singular), but it's a tough sell. One argument I've made is that you and your are used as both singular and plural pronouns, referring to one person or a number of people. And it takes a plural verb in both uses. We should treat they, their and them in the same way.

For additional comment on that topic, check out the their, them, they item in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual. Also see the sex, sexism item.

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