paper or plastic

December 21st, 2011 | Uncategorized


June Thomas has a new nonfiction book podcast over at Slate. Her first episode is a chat with Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. (See here for a post about my own fascinating visit with Steve a couple years ago.)

I’m on the Usage Panel of the AHD which means I get to weigh in on things like whether “their” as a gender neutral pronoun is okay. (I’m lobbying hard for a yes on that one.) It also means that I get a free dictionary when a new edition comes out. The Fifth arrived recently, resplendent as ever with its profuse photo illustrations. But this time it came with an app for my phone! And it’s a pretty cool app. It contains the full text of the dictionary, which is great, but the search function is…what do you call it…like how Google works now, where with each letter you input it’s finding new search results? Anyhow, the AHD app does that, with each letter you input, a list of words comes up. One of the amazing things about the hard copy dictionary, of course, is the serendipitous pleasure of finding other words on your way to looking up one particular word. And some of that analog experience is preserved by the app’s alphabetical list of possible answers to your search.

(SOmebody please tell me what that technology is called. My brain is so fried from drawing 16 hours a day I can’t even try to look it up.)

ANyhow, June’s talk with Steve is fascinating. One of the things they discuss is whether the Fifth Edition of the AHD could be the last printed dictionary.

41 Responses to “paper or plastic”

  1. Riotllama says:

    Yes! Their CAN be a singular pronoun!! I hope you win that fight.

  2. Andrew B says:

    I think the term you’re looking for is “incremental search”.

    The use of “their” as singular and gender-neutral has been common for at least fifteen years. Any dictionary that is descriptive rather than prescriptive must include it. That’s in addition to the reasons, based on clarity of expression and morality, why it should be included. Tell ’em!

    [Andrew is, of course, correct that the generic term for this is “incremental search”. Also Google uses the “brand name” of “Google Instant”. –Mentor]

  3. Ginjoint says:

    whether “their” as a gender neutral pronoun is okay. (I’m lobbying hard for a yes on that one.)
    THANK YOU. It’s just so much easier that way.

    Incremental searches can also offer that serendipitous pleasure you spoke of – discovering the search phrases of others can be…interesting, yes?

  4. Amber says:

    Accepting the use of “their” or “they” for the singular seems so wrong to me because it is often important to indicate singularity or plurality with pronouns. It’s the one old school grammar rule get twitchy about. Until civilization destroys the gender binary for good, couldn’t “s/he” suffice? And for possessive I say we all just agree to take the time to write or say “the _______ that s/he has.” Problem solved.

  5. Eli says:

    Amber, if it’s so important to indicate singularity or plurality, why do we settle for a second person pronoun that’s completely ambiguous?

    There are constructed gender-neutral pronouns that are specifically singular and a growing number of people use them, but “they” is hands-down the establishment favorite — most people prefer a new use of a familiar word over a neologism, even if the former introduces some ambiguity. I assume that over at AHD headquarters there’s no debate about whether to include “ze”, “ey”, or “thon” (but if I’m wrong on that point, I’d be happy to hear it!)

    Either way, changing our language is a prerequisite for undermining the gender binary, not the other way around.

  6. Amber says:

    Good points, Eli. I still get twitchy at the thought of “they” being used for the singular though.

  7. NLC says:

    A professor I once had made the point that, yes, it is true that using “they/their/them” as a third-person singular, gender-neutral, pronoun is, strictly speaking, making an error in number.

    However, the alternative –i.e. always using “he/his/him” in “ambiguous” cases– is making an error of gender.

    That is, using “they” is not introducing an error into the discussion; rather it is simply trading one error for another.

    To be clear she [they?] meant this as a Good Thing; i.e. she was arguing for the use of “they” in this situation.

    I always felt this was an interesting way of looking at the issue.

    (And, I sort of come down on the issue mid-way between Amber and Eli above. Deliberate ambiguity should always be approached carefully, of course. But, as Eli points out, we’ve been using the number-ambiguous “you” for several centuries now.)

  8. hairball_of_hope says:

    @AB, Andrew B

    Depending on the application and context, the feature you are describing can be called autocomplete, autopopulate, predictive search, or incremental search; a few other terms restricted to specialized applications also exist, such as code completion. Most non-programmers call it autocomplete.

    All are forms of predictive text, where each successive character entered winnows down the list of suggestions until the user either completes the entry or selects one from the suggestion list.

    It works best when there is a static defined list of possible entries with limited opportunities for ambiguity, such as a list of medical billing codes. In the medical billing code example, EHR (Electronic Health Record) systems usually provide a short synopsis of the diagnosis/procedure alongside the code to assist the user in selecting the correct code.

    In the dictionary example, some fuzzy logic is usually built in to the predictive text function to accomodate misspellings or phonetically similar words (e.g. Soundex).

    In online retail shopping search boxes, there’s usually some logic that links similar products, even if the search terms are vastly different; e.g. entering “graphic novel” in the search box may bring up a list of works or authors of that genre. Results in a retail search box are often tweaked to promote “popular” items first, which might not actually be the statistically most popular, but are the ones the retailer makes the most money from or most wants to unload.

    Electronic dictionaries are nothing new, and neither is the autocomplete/browsing function for these dictionaries. I’ve been using an electronic version of the Random House Unabridged 2ed. since 1994 (I first used it on Windows v.3.1, to show just how old this is in technology terms!). It has both a direct lookup function, and a browse function (which gives some of the experience of randomly stumbling on interesting words). What I use it for most, however, is the pronunciation. Click on the little speaker icon and a perfect real human pronunciation is uttered from the computer. Perfect for the othoepy-challenged among us.

    “Their” as a singular gender-neutral substitute for s/he (or other construction) to bypass specific gender sets my hairs on end. I understand the point Andrew makes about descriptive vs. prescriptive usage guides in the dictionary. I balk at this one because the world is assumed to be male until proven otherwise, and use of “their” instead of using inclusive language that specifies females and males often perpetuates that “male is the norm” and anything else is the exception.

    I believe it’s important to actively state that women exist and are included when writing.

    I know there are some alternative pronouns in limited use in the English language; to me, writing only with male words is sexist and using “their” as a singular gender-neutral term is lazy and non-inclusive.

    Compare this to the “white is the norm” situation. These days, most commercial and educational visual media sprinkle at least a few non-Caucasians into photographs and videos to indicate inclusiveness and diversity. Imagine if instead, there were no identifiable black, Asian, or ethnic people in these visuals. Oh yes, you’re included, see, we have amorphous-looking people like Derek Jeter, Mariah Carey, and Tiger Woods (all of whom are biracial). That would be the visual equivalent of “their” – a poor substitute for showing humankind in all its diversity.

    Imagine reading about married couples, and we are to assume that although they only mentioned heterosexual couples, or didn’t specify the gender makeup, same-sex couples are included. Same idea.

    Where’s Maggie when we need her? I’d love to hear her take on “their” usage and inclusive language.

    (… goes back to browsing through her latest find from the recycle pile in the basement, the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary 4ed. …)

  9. hairball_of_hope says:

    I forgot to mention Douglas Hofstadter’s brilliant “A Person Paper on Purity in Language” which makes the point about sexist non-inclusive language by substituting racist white-centric language. It was published in Metamagical Themas, but I found a copy on the web:

    What struck me when I read it 25 years ago was that 25 years earlier (1960), there would have been lots of folks who were comfortable with the racist language. What strikes me today 25 years later as I reread it is that we haven’t made the same strides in reducing overt sexism that we’ve made in reducing overt racism.

    If anything, I think we’ve taken several steps backward in popular usage. Sometime during the 2000s I noticed mainstream media started using “chairman” vs. “chair,” and a resurgence of gender-specific job titles such as “fireman” and “policeman” instead of “police officer” and “firefighter” etc.

    (… goes back to musing about language in an office with lots of non-native English speakers …)

  10. Cheering for the use of “their” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. It’s got a long history in the English language. Even if it didn’t, language changes. That’s part of what keeps it alive and of use.

  11. Ginjoint says:

    Hairball, I hope I don’t come across as stupid, but you lost me. I too believe it’s important to include women in language, which is why I sometimes use “their” or “they” when I’m in a more casual speaking situation. I think of their/they (I’m forgoing the quotation marks) as gender neutral. (If it’s a more formal or professional environment, I’ll actually say “he or she” or “his or her” – it’s more of a mouthful, but important to me for the same reasons as you. {As yours? Help me!}) But it seems you feel their/they specify the default male. Is that because those words have been around for quite some time, so you include them in along with the other sexist aspects of English? Guilt by association, kind of, or an old boys’ network? 😀 Or did I totally not get your point of view?

  12. Kate L says:

    I’ve been using “their” as gender-neutral pronoun. So much more inclusive than the old-school habit of using the masculine to represent all of the human race. Btw, I have a transsexual friend who early in their transition wished to be referred to by “ze”, etc. I was never any good at doing that, and I was vastly relieved when she decided that she wanted to be referred to in the feminine.

  13. Feminista says:

    Happy Hanukkah* and Merry Solstice to all. Latest word is that Solstice occurs 12/21@9:30 PST,12/22 @
    12:30 AM,and 12/22 @5:30 AM GMT.

    *Although this holiday of 8 nights has many spellings,the most commonly used ones in the US are the above and Chanukah.

    Off to sunny Califor-ni-ay (Mt.View,SF Bay Area)tomorrow to visit sister and her family. Looking forward to highs in mid-60F.

  14. Kate L says:

    Feminista (#13) Back atcha’! 🙂 By coincidence, I’ve found my late father’s childhood dreidel in a cupboard drawer. Btw, here is a sure sign that social progress can be made, this in regard to lesbians and gay men serving openly in the U.S. military, and the tradition of the welcome home kiss after a deployment being shared by two women.

  15. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Ginjoint (#11)

    Good questions.

    (Re: “Help me!” The correct usage is “you,” but the sentence construction might read better as “… it’s important to me for the same reasons it’s important to you.”)

    Perhaps my sexist language antennae are very sensitive after three-plus decades as the only/one of the few/rarity females in a nearly all-male tech profession. Considering some of the amazing sexist BS I’ve had to put up with over the years, language is really not quite up there on a daily basis as some more essential stuff, such as worksites with only male restrooms, personal protective gear sized for men, and troglodytes who think the only things a woman are good for are sex and taking care of the home/kids.

    That’s not to diminish the importance of inclusive language. Assuming that usage of words such as “mankind” and “men” includes women is something that feminists have been working to change for many decades. Sometimes gender-neutral substitution is appropriate, e.g. “chair,” “police officer,” etc., particularly with job titles. But sometimes it’s much more effective to actively include female or fe/male pronouns and possessives, such as s/he, or explicitly use the feminine forms, to convey the idea that WOMEN are the humans being discussed (or among the humans being discussed), instead of the default male that many (including women) keep in their heads.

    That’s why I don’t care for the “they/their” grammatical constructions. It doesn’t feel gender-neutral so much as a lazy way to claim women are included without challenging the default male assumption.

    Notice how many folks use “him/her” or “his/her” (male first). I reverse the order, female first (“her/his,” “her/him”). Even in the inclusive pronouns/possessives, women come second. Boo.

    All this reminds me of a button from years past, “How dare you presume I’m heterosexual.” Yet another widely-held default assumption that I believe is best fought with inclusive language and images.

    I find that inclusive language *is* important in conveying expectations, vs. gender-neutral language vs. male language.

    Do you recall the scene in the film My Cousin Vinny where the car expert was a woman and sexist expectations flustered the opposing attorney? I had a similar experience years ago; I was testifying as an expert witness in a hearing and the attorney for the defense intentionally used gender-neutral and vague pronouns when she discussed the upcoming appearance of her expert witness.

    The cross-examination was just like the film, the opposing attorney was beside himself because of his sexist preconceptions, he didn’t know what to do with me and he screwed up his arguments royally. I actually had a bit of fun with him and his discomfort, and tweaked my answers to exacerbate his unpreparedness. (Rule #1 for an attorney is to never ask questions to which you don’t already know the answers. He was so flustered he violated Rule #1, and my answers sank his argument.)

    The defense attorney had encountered his subtly sexist language and behavior during the discovery process, and specifically sought me out as a witness (as opposed to other folks who were similarly qualified) because she figured that would give her a strategic edge. She was right.

    All this talk of explicitly including women in language does seem to perpetuate the gender binary that is really not a binary at all. I do have more than a little discomfort with that, but I don’t know how to linguistically balance making sure women are included vs. language that lumps other-than-males and males into a generic term that is supposed to be inclusive/neutral when internal assumptions scream “MALE” for a large segment of the population.

    Happy Chanukah, y’all. Enjoy the latkes (or doughnuts).

    N.B. It’s traditional to eat foods fried in oil on Chanukah, a nod to the miracle of the one cruse of oil which lasted for eight days after the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple. I can’t really eat all that fried stuff; for me the miracle of Chanukah is that one latke (fried potato pancake) can give me heartburn for eight days!

    (… goes back to an imaginary Marine Corps recruiting poster, “Looking for a few good women” …)

  16. Leah Brooks says:

    That function is actually called “type ahead”.

  17. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Leah (#17)

    Properly speaking, “typeahead” is a buffer that captures keystrokes for those times when the typist is inputting characters faster than the computer or typewriter can process them. The buffer feeds the backlog of characters to the device as processing cycles become available. The term dates back to the 1960s. Those of us who still work on computer systems with terminal inputs or emulation (e.g. DEC VT420, IBM 3270) can set typeahead buffers to be enabled or disabled.

    Typeahead has also been (improperly) used to refer to the functions known as autocomplete, incremental search, et al. But as with all evolving languages and definitions, enough folks have misused the term “typeahead” that the Wiki article on typeahead notes this usage as well.

    (… goes back to looking for that function known as “salaryahead,” where the money comes in faster than it goes out …)

  18. Mentor says:

    [And from here at the solstice, a little something in hopes that we may all see the most joyous and peaceful of times: “The Loudest Voice”

    Be well, old friends. –Mentor]

  19. Joanne says:

    Hey Allison,

    I want to endorse what Andrew B said. No offense, but “they” as a gender-neutral possessive adjective already exists in the language. No elite panel of experts gets to decide by vote whether it, or any other word, is “legitimate” or not — the community of English speakers determines that by either using it or not using it.

    Excuse me for the lecture, but I work for one of the other dictionaries on the market, Merriam-Webster. We are dyed-in-the-wool descriptivists, meaning that we simply report the facts of usage and don’t tell people it’s incorrect to use this or that word that has been part of the language for decades or even centuries. You’d be surprised at how old and well-established some disputed usages are! I’ll bet you dollars to donuts “they” has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun (and “their” as the adjective) for a lot longer than you’d think. When I get to work in a little while, I’ll look it up for you.


    Joanne D

  20. Joanne says:

    OK, found the information. According to the usage note at the entry for “they” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, “English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns (as everyone, anyone, someone). Writers and speakers have supplied this lack by using the plural pronouns . The plural pronouns have also been put to use as pronouns of indefinite number to refer to singular nouns that stand for many persons . The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts . . .”

  21. NLC says:

    To carry this discussion a bit further, I don’t think the two tasks that Joanne describes need be mutually exclusive, at least not in principle.

    On the one hand, it goes without saying that a descriptivist position (i.e. “Here’s how people actually use the given word in the real world”) is invaluable.

    On the other hand, though, I think the question becomes what should the role of such a panel be.

    I don’t think anyone –at least anyone here– is arguing for something along the lines of the French Academy[*]; i.e. a group who gets to, effectively, legislate what a given word “really means” and how it should be used.

    But (at least to my understanding) that’s not the function of a “Usage Panel” as described above. Rather in this case its role is serve as something like an advisory panel; to offer advice and make suggestions about how words can be most usefully used.

    In other words, I would see such a panel as a group of individuals with extensive experience and, acknowledged, demonstrated skill who can collectively offer valuable comments on language Usage.

    Having such a set of opinions available is, I would argue, at least as valuable a resource as the above. I’m still free to ignore their advice; but there are times when I’d very much like to know what it is.

    [* Such Official Language Boards are not that uncommon around the word. A friend told me once of a cousin who opened a new bakery in Tel Aviv. The Cousin wanted to offer a new item for sale, which apparently had never been sold in Israel before (let’s say a muffin). According to my friend the Cousin had to apply to the Israeli analogue to the French Academy to get an officially sanctioned name for the item.]

  22. Most people call that kind of search feature “autocomplete.”

    I’ll also call it “type-ahead,” but hairball_of_hope is right, above, in pointing out that “type-ahead” is actually something else.

    I’ve never heard the phrase “incremental search,” and as a user experience designer for 15 years, I feel like I’ve come across almost every term related to software and the internet. Goes to show.

  23. Ginjoint says:

    Thanks for your answers, Hairball! It makes perfect sense why the inclusion of women in language is so important to you. While I agree that there’s an aspect of laziness to the use of their/they as singular (as in not wanting to bother to verbalize or write “he or she”), and when I use it my inner grammar alarm does trip up, I don’t share your feelings of their/they as leaning toward the default male. Obviously, YMDV (your mileage does vary). Again, I tend to use it in more casual settings. And like you, I enjoy saying “her or him”/”she or he” just to shake things up a little. 😉

    Also, I would’ve LOVED to have seen that courtroom scene! Priceless.

    Joanne, thanks for that info. I use Merriam-Webster’s website, which is great except for the pop-up ads which somehow make it around my pop-up blocker. But I guess you have to pay the mortgage somehow, right?

  24. Joanne says:

    Sure, NCL, I see your point. Whatever the facts about matters of disputed usage may be, failing to note how strongly some people feel about these things can get you into trouble. Most definitely, users need guidance to understand what is considered acceptable in formal contexts and what isn’t. Analyzing the writings of present users and “past masters” is one way of navigating those gray areas of usage, and reporting the consensus opinion of a Usage Panel is another. As long as users realize that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer, it’s all good!

  25. Jain says:

    Maggie’s not discussing “their” as gender neutral singular only because she’s in the hospital. Sore that would not heal led to a diabetes diagnosis, now being successfully treated, physical therapy (2 years overdue) is leading to regained mobility. Lots of pain, anger, hope, joy.

  26. Joanne says:

    Hi Ginjoint,

    Sorry about those pop-ups, but you’re absolutely right — Web advertising is how we’re staying alive. Very few people buy print dictionaries anymore! It’s kind of scary.

  27. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Jain (#26)

    Yikes! Please convey my (our) wishes for Maggie’s speedy recovery.


    “As long as users realize that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer, it’s all good!”

    Hmmm… I use dictionaries as authoritative sources, meaning that I prefer the prescriptive vs. the descriptive. The pronounciation guide is another area where I prefer prescriptive guidance.

    If you read an earlier post of mine where I confessed to being an “apostrophe vigilante,” I must now also confess to yelling back at the radio/TV/whatever when “short-lived” is pronounced with a short “i” vowel.

    Of course, I’m also a fussbudget about the usage of “less” vs. “fewer.” I shout at the radio when Yankees announcer John Sterling commits this error every game.

    Not to worry about folks not buying print dictionaries, I still spend my money on them. However, I think print encyclopedias are endangered species.

    Sitting at my desk at work now, I have a Random House Unabridged 1ed. and a Merriam-Webster Collegiate 9th at my fingertips. Looking across the cube farm, Gary has the same MW and an American Heritage. Not sure what others have in their cubes, I’m not going to snoop. At home, I have an assortment of standard and specialized tomes, ranging from the oddball (“Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words”) to the highly specialized (“The Multilingual Computer Dictionary”), to satire (“The Devil’s DP Dictionary”), and an assortment of wordbook tomes, thesauri, etc. (including the idiosyncratic “Word Menu”). Still haven’t reached the point where I can afford (or have room for) the full OED, the print version will probably be extinct within a decade and I’ll be kicking myself for not buying it.

    Booklust… it’s a good thing.

    (… goes back to life in the cube farm, where we insert tiny messages about stupid managers in Autocad drawings …)

  28. Alex K says:

    An easy tack to take, and one that I enjoy, is simply to use the feminine pronouns. No she-he eggshell-walking. SHE.

    I went to the doctor, and I said, Doctor, it hurts when I do this, and she said, Don’t do that.

    Or, with Sondheim:

    I could understand a person
    if she wasn’t good in bed
    I could understand a person
    if she ac’shally was dead

    — easy, transgressive, and (again) fun.

    You can really throw sand into the right people’s gears with this, and to do so just puts a shine on my day.

  29. hairball_of_hope says:

    This morning, I found myself really attuned to listening for “their” gender-neutral singular usage.

    The local NPR affiliate announcer read a “supported by” blurb about a local hospital which focuses on the patient and “…provides a wide range of treatment options specific to their condition.”

    That would be fine usage if one accepts “their” as the gender-neutral singular pronoun, except that the diagnosis being referenced was prostate cancer. Last time I checked, only males have prostate glands. Dr. K, please correct me if I’m wrong on that, I’m not aware of any vestigial prostate glands in women.

    Had this been a blurb about breast cancer, which affects men and women, I might have been more forgiving of the usage of “their,” although I think in that case it would be much more effective to say her/him to emphasize that breast cancer affects men too.

    (… goes back to another day in the padded cell cube farm, where we try to duck the stupidity aura of our managers …)

  30. Alex K says:

    The vestigial prostate gland in women? Not vestigial, transformed. In the male, the epithelial buds into the urethral wall become the prostate; in the female, Skene’s glands, in either case the source of fluid released during ejaculation. The embryo does not discard anlagen lightly.

    If to say “…focussing on the patient with prostate cancer, provides a wide range of treatment options specific to her condition” makes members of the wireless audience drop their buttered toast into the marmalade pot — excuse me, makes the average member of the wireless audience drop her buttered toast into the marmalade pot — so much the better.

    For everyone but the next marmalade user, mind you, who has to deal — as she scoops out lashings of Seville orange at its best — with those residual crumbs.

    Reasoning by analogy with horses, I myself never look a gift jampot in the, erm, mouth.

  31. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Dr K (#31)

    Thanks for that education. I learn so much from the smart and erudite folks here. Now that I’ve done the requisite Google and Wiki reading, I learned all about Skene’s glands, G-spots, female ejaculation, etc. Not that I’ve got the opportunity to actually use that info, but it’s good just the same.

    Of course, now you have me thinking about orange marmalade, and I have none in the house. I will have to toss some Tiptree’s into the shopping cart on my next grocery run. Not as good as my mother’s various homemade citrus marmalades, but my gustatory memories are probably exaggerated. I’m also a fan of ginger preserves; tasty and with some bite, a good combo for breakfast.

    (… goes back to her tea and Cheerios, not poetic at all …)

  32. hairball_of_hope says:

    @NLC (#22)

    There’s actually a good historical reason for the existence of the official Hebrew language academy.

    Hebrew was a dead language used mainly for religious purposes from about 200CE onward. When the modern-day Zionists emigrated to Israel in the late 19th century, they spoke a variety of languages natively, and most often used Yiddish as their lingua franca. For political and ideological reasons, they promoted Hebrew as the language of the nascent Zionist state.

    As a language that missed out on 2000 years of technological and societal change, it was important to the Zionists that the new modern Hebrew have natively-developed words instead of relying on loanwords from other languages. Hence, the formation of the Hebrew academy to assist in that process.

    Yiddish use was discouraged and its speakers denigrated during the British Mandate period. After independence from the UK and the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Yiddish was banned, including Yiddish theatre and publications.

    The irony here is that a dead language (Hebrew) was revived, and a live vibrant language (Yiddish) was killed off. Today, the primary speakers of Yiddish are various Chasidic communities around the world. Unfortunately, that demographic has changed the sole remaining US Yiddish newspaper Der Forverts (The Forward) from a socialist paper into a rabid right-wing rag. The English-language version is comparatively toned down from the Yiddish version, but both make me cringe.

    Israel actually has two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic. English and Russian are the two most commonly-spoken unofficial languages.

    (… goes back to running errands before everything closes for Xmas eve bacchanalia …)

  33. Alex K says:

    Gertrude Stein’s MISS FURR AND MISS SKEENE — Stein never made her way far enough into the medical curriculum at Johns Hopkins to work on the wards; but she will have in her introductory classes learnt anatomy and histology, as the sniggering title of this work reflects.

  34. donna says:

    Hairball of Hope expressed it perfectly: “That’s why I don’t care for the “they/their” grammatical constructions. It doesn’t feel gender-neutral so much as a lazy way to claim women are included without challenging the default male assumption.”

  35. donna says:

    Plus to my ear it sounds grammatically incorrect. When I catch myself using they/their/them, I’m embarrassed, and I probably catch myself a fraction of the time. I seem to be particularly susceptible to acquiring the speech habits I don’t want to pick up. (But I try to offset this by reading good stuff.)

  36. Andrew B says:

    Interesting footnote to this discussion: I was thumbing through a book of Ursula K. LeGuin’s essays at the library and found a mention of this. Writing in I think the late 80s, she claimed that (1) the use of they/their/them as a non-gendered singular was common in contemporary English and American usage; and (2) it had been normal in written English up until the 16th century. This was in a comment on an earlier essay she had written about her novel The Left Hand of Darkness. I haven’t read the novel yet. I gather that it involves humanoid beings who have no fixed genders. In the novel Leguin used “he” to refer to them. In the early essay she had defended that; in the later comments she criticized her earlier usage and said she ought to have used “they”.

    Unfortunately she provided no citations for her claims about “they” — just a one-sentence comment — but it’s interesting nonetheless. The book I was looking at was Dancing at the edge of the world : thoughts on words, women, places (Grove, 1989). The essay is near the beginning, around pp 10-20.

  37. ladiesbane says:

    This issue may be long dead, but I’m just reading it, so I have to add my two cents. Sorry, but “their” is not a good replacement for “his or her”. A plural cannot replace a singular. I will lobby hard for improved language that is genderless (a firefighter fights fires; a fireman is the Human Torch, etc.,) but not for genderless terms that require blindness to meaning. This is worse than “waitron.” Sorry.

  38. Ace says:

    Ladiesbane: but a plural already did replace a singular and nobody died of it, unless thou preferest to return to the days when we had separate singular and plural second-person pronouns.

  39. Ace says:

    Anyway, singular “they” has been used since Chaucer, for heaven’s sake. That ship has long since sailed.

  40. Andrew B says:

    Ace, 40, do you have a source for “since Chaucer”? It’s not that I disbelieve you. It’s just that when somebody challenges me, I’d like to have a source to point to.