The Neuter in Grammar: Letting Go

Pronouns - NeuterThere was a change in the grammar style here at Frankly Curious on the first day of this year: I changed how the neuter is used. What I mean by this is how indeterminate third person pronouns are handled. For over four months now, I’ve been using “they” and “them” for the neuter. And I expect to do so for the rest of my life, because I’ve given up.

Traditionally, English has used the masculine. So you would get sentences like, “We don’t know who the next prime minister will be, but he will inherit a difficult situation.” But through most of my life, anyway, there has been pushback against this. And there’s a very good reason: it shapes the way people think. If a physics text book constantly refers to “he” and “him,” it creates the image that physicists are men.

Last year, I used “she” and “her” for the neuter with the idea that this year I would use “he” and “him.”

This is an issue that I’ve grappled with for a long time. Being the analytical type that I am, I’ve long believed that we should just use “it,” which is totally neutral. But I have found that people hate this idea. It doesn’t make much sense to me. Most people love their cats and dogs more than they do other people, but no one gets upset about cats and dogs being referred to as “it.” Still, I understand that it would be jarring to hear, “We don’t know who the next prime minister will be, but it will inherit a difficult situation.” And if George Bernard Shaw couldn’t get spelling reformed, I’m definitely not going to work this into a popular cause.

Last year, I used “she” and “her” for the neuter with the idea that this year I would use “he” and “him.” Thus I would alternate years, as I explained in the prematurely celebratory article, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Solved! But I found it awkward. Maybe in a global sense, I was equalizing gender roles, but in any given instance, things did not read as neutral. Consider, for example, “After the serial killer finished, she apparently had sex with the corpse.”

The same problem exists in the common approach to use the masculine or feminine randomly. In addition, I just find such an approach maddening. I’m not a random number generator. I can’t be depended upon to get the proportions right over time. (One could, I suppose, create a WordPress plugin that would alert the reader as to which gender should be used in any given article.) Similarly, people have tried to make up new words, but that works as well as getting everyone to use “it.” In fact, it’s worse, because at least no one is confused by using “it” to refer to human beings.

Neuter: Accepting Plurals

So I’ve given up — or at least let go of a past prejudice. I’ve always believed that using “they” and “them” for the neuter seemed lazy — too much like spoken English. And it was technically incorrect in as much as these words have traditionally been plural. But they’ve been used as singular for long enough that I don’t see a problem. They still sound wrong to me, but I’ll get over that.

There are other aspects of this choice as well. For one thing, my approach to grammar is to make things as easy as possible. And this is something I don’t have to think about. But the major force behind this change is being an editor at a big money-making website. There I can’t depend upon people knowing what I’m doing (or just trying to do). The worst the readers will think of using the plurals is that the website has some sloppy writing. And anyone who thinks that, will have thought it anyway. We aren’t publishing Virginia Woolf there.

So my (hopefully) final decision on the neuter is the old plural standbys. “We don’t know who the next prime minister will be, but they will inherit a difficult situation.” It doesn’t thrill me, but it’s okay.

Anniversary Post: LZ 129 Hindenburg Disaster

Hindenburg DisasterOn this day in 1937, LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed while attempting to land in New Jersey. What’s perhaps most amazing about the whole thing is that only 35 of the 97 people on board died. Look at the video below. It’s hard to believe that anyone (besides Robert Clary) had survived.

I’ve always assumed that the Hindenburg disaster was just waiting to happen. After all, the Germans had used hydrogen instead of helium for it. And hydrogen is just ridiculously explosive. But I learned that this was not a decision they made willingly. Helium was extremely expensive — when you could get it. And mostly, you couldn’t get it, because the United States was about the only country that produced it (it comes from natural gas mining, if you care to capture it). The US refused to export it. And given that construction of the Hindenburg was started in 1931, this probably had nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazis.

Before I always thought that the designers of the Hindenburg were at fault. But now I don’t. In fact, they took great precautions to make the ship as safe as possible. And that brings up the other amazing thing about this disaster: we don’t know what the cause was.

At the time, most people thought it was sabotage. There is even a theory that Hitler called for the Hindenburg to be destroyed because the great old man of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (builder of the Hindenburg), Hugo Eckener, was an outspoken critic of the Nazis. It seems a bit indirect to me.

I tend to think that it was just an accident. Hugo Eckener thought it was a spark from built up static electricity. One of the crew members suggests that the landing maneuver caused sparks. But there are lots of other theories. In fact, this is one of the cases that is just going to get more confusing as time goes on.