Matthew P. Schmidt

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Why I prefer the generic he to the singular they.

Jul 30, 2020 | Thoughts, Writings | 1 comment

This aforementioned principle of mine is sadly no longer about grammar; it is about a whole host of partisan issues. But I’m going to ignore all of those and talk solely about why don’t use the singular they for an antecedent of unknown gender.

My first complaint is that the two biggest arguments for the singular they are contradictory. Namely:

1. The singular they has become the common use, and linguistics should not dictate how people speak.

2. It is wrong to use the generic he, as it is sexist.

What gives? If the English Language was, as in (1), a Hobbesian war of all against all, where words have no meanings, only uses, then we cannot suddenly drag out (2) a high-minded moral principle to proscribe how language “ought” to be. Either there is a moral fabric to human languages or there is not; to claim both simultaneously as long as it benefits one’s side is ludicrous.

As it is, the idea that “words have no meanings, only uses” is a statement that if true, would be meaningless. So let us consider the alternate case, that morality is as an important part of language as in any other human undertaking.

Is the generic he sexist? Usually documents are brought up (invariably, the Declaration of Independence) to show that all those sexist forefathers only thought men were people. But this cannot be taken seriously if you actually apply it to the documents in question. “All men are mortal, ergo women are immortal.” “No man can come to me unless the Father beckons (but women can just crash the party.)” Indeed, I dare say such claims are used more often as a scheme to paint the works of old as sexist than an actual detector of sexism.

(When I was on the side of “inclusive language”, I thought the point was to use alternate systems such as the generic she or alternating pronouns to balance it all out. But surely if this was the case, the lack of as many he-partisans would eventually tip the scales of sexism the other direction; we would be forced to use he repeatedly to balance things out.)

But really, what is the point of language. Beauty, I dare say, is the point. If it was not for that, why not simply grunt at each other and point?

So, then, is the singular they ugly? Consider this as the opening line to a story:

 Let he who dares trespass my tomb draw his blade and face me!

As opposed to:

Let they who dare trespass my tomb draw their blade and face me!

Which is more potent? Which would some kind of revenant say? Note that we have gone from one trespasser to maybe one or several in the second version, simply because of the ambiguity of the singular they. Because of this ambiguity, when we have reached the word “blade” and not “blades” we have a confusion of ideas. Or we can make it explicit that there are multiple tomb-invaders by adding an s.

Let they who dare trespass my tomb draw their blades and face me!

But now we have lost even more of the challenge of the initial line.

Let’s try another version, this time insisting that it’s a single person.

Let he who dares trespass my tomb draw his blade and face me in single combat! 

Versus:

Let they who dare trespass my tomb draw their blade and face me in single combat!

Blegh. Or alternatively…

Let they who dare trespass my tomb draw their blades and face me in single combat! 

So, wait, do we form a queue or…?

Let’s try some other alternatives.

Let he or she who dares trespass my tomb draw his or her blade and face me in single combat!

Try saying that with a straight face.

How about spivak?

Let e who dares trespass my tomb draw eir blade and face me in single combat!

Or what about the NIV’s approach?

Let the one who dares trespass my tomb draw their blade and face me in single combat!

Aside from the confused plurality, it is weak. We have gone from a challenge to a lecture.

Or this:

Let she who dares trespass my tomb draw her blade and face me in single combat!

Now the reader must stop to think if the tomb-raider actually is female, or if the revenant knows.  I fear all we have done is brought attention to how English does not have a gender-neutral third person pronoun, which the undead horror wishes to now lecture us about.

And that is the biggest problem of it all. All these other examples are trying to find some way to say the line that the original nailed, while maintaining some external modern standard. It’s like picking an uglier shade of paint. Perhaps you have some reason to choose as such, but that does not make the paint beautiful.

English does not have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. You can either try to make the he generic (as has been done) or make the they singular (as has been done) or dodge the issue altogether (as you cannot always do).

More particularly, the use of “he” is not arbitrary. I am distressed when creators make things embodiments of cosmic horror explicitly female. Why? We causally call Cthulhu a he, and the world does not cave in on us, because he can be generic. “He” does not predispose that he has male organs, or that he is the husband of Shethulhu, or anything else. It may imply it, but it does not require it. Like the angels and God, Cthulhu has no gender, but is not an object–not an “it.”

By calling something a “she”, we do have to make “her” a woman. Lady Luck, America, Liberty, and the Titanic all are shes, and that is a statement on the nature of gender. We say that luck is fickle in a way that only a woman can be fickle, and thus use the analogy to convey meaning. Calling something inanimate a “she” simply because we have not met our quotas for female representation simply drains the English language of meaning and beauty.

And that is why I use the generic he.

 

1 Comment

  1. I like the spivak pronouns. They speak to me. In the context of a larger work where the spivak pronouns have been normalized, I think the line works beautifully. Maybe eventually we’ll live in a world where spivak pronouns are the normal context.

    Reply

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