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.

20 thoughts on “The Neuter in Grammar: Letting Go

  1. I didn’t have that much of a problem with the attempts to create gender neutral terms but since you would spend more time explaining what they meant then actually using them…

    So welcome to the dark side! The cake is on the left and the cookies are in the back. Coffee?

    • Ha! That’s good. But I don’t actually see it as the dark side. It does, however, mean that I am not going to be a martyr for the neuter!

  2. Apart from the anachronism of referring to a ship as ‘she’ I can’t think of any gendered nouns in English. The romance languages have them because Latin has them. Is this a thing in many other languages?

    • I think it is more common than not. But I’m basing it on a vague memory of an essay I read years ago.

  3. I agree with this entirely. I think I mainly resisted because I took French, and they have “on,” which is the gender neutral singular pronoun. I wish we had something that clear in English. Instead, we use they, and if it seems wrong to me, I can at least accept that it’s been used for over a century, so it’s not like it was just invented out of thin air. It’s still better than “xie” and “hir,” which are noble attempts but will never catch on.

    • Do the French use ‘on’ to be a gender-neutral replacement for ‘il’ and ‘elle’? When I learned French in the 80s, no-one (in the kind of writing we were studying, anyway) was worrying about that, and it meant ‘one’ – for which most English speakers say ‘you’, instead (very occasionally, I’ll use ‘one’, when I want to make it clear I would never imagine the person I’m conversing with would do whatever’s under discussion).

      These days I read French so rarely, and when I do I’m just trying the get the gist of an article, that I have no idea if ‘on’ is doing this job now.

    • That does suggest the ultimate solution: use another language. The problem is that every language has its problems. Imperfect fixes are all we have.

  4. There’s a discussion in Fowler’s MODERN ENGLISH USAGE under “they, them, their” showing that “they” as a singular term for “he or she” was used in in the past. From the 18th Century, we have the example of Fielding, “Everyone in the house was in their beds” From the 19th, Thackeray, “A person can’t help their birth.” Fowler has others, and in fact, I recall a lengthy discussion on the Anthropology e-list back about 1995 with people dragging up examples from the 17th century as well.

    Granted, Fowler frowns upon this. And granted, that using male pronouns for persons/objects of uncertain sex (“everyone in his bed”) works tolerably well. But time passes and custom changes. The public hangman was a prominent figure in English justice 50 years ago, and few would wish to see his return. We can allow the conventions of grammar to be amended as well.

    You’re not adopting a novel usage, in other words, or even a vulgar one. It’s old and established, and perhaps its popularity has waxed and waned under the influence of grammarians over the years, but that’s true of other now acceptable English usages — ending sentences with prepositions, for instance.

    • Well done!

      The thing currently driving me nuts is where to put periods when using parentheses. (This looks wrong,) and (this also looks wrong).

    • That’s great. I should have checked with Fowler before writing this. But I’m aware this has been an issue for a very long time. The standard in publishing today is to randomize. But I think the plural use will win the day. Who needs to worry about problems like this that simply have no satisfactory answer. The plural is as satisfactory as any — and easy.

      The proscription against ending sentences with prepositions was part of the 19th century fad to make English as much like Latin as possible. Although I believe there are often aesthetic not to do it, it is stupid. In fact, any ironclad rules are stupid. Clarity is all.

  5. Thought I’d put this here rather than in the newer, topical posts.

    I hate “Rolling Thunder Don’t Care About Soldiers.” Not the post; the plural. Every fiber of my pathetic being screams it should be “doesn’t care.” You’re probably right in how it’s supposed to be; it’s a plural proper noun, and one would type “jerks don’t care.” But, dammit, it still looks wrong.

    • It’s a mistake. At least for me, when I talk about a group, I use the singular. What happened was that the title of the post was originally, “Conservatives Don’t Care About Soldiers.” But I later changed it to “Rolling Thunder” and I just wasn’t paying attention. Many people refer to groups in the plural, so that construction isn’t wrong in an absolute sense. But it was wrong for me. Thanks for pointing it out. I’ll change it.

      • Wasn’t picking on you! I meant more the convention. “Jazz Defeats Blazers 95-94.” I’d never complain about someone else’s typos! Log from my own eye, etc.

        • No, no. I appreciate it. I’ve come upon years old articles with major mistakes in them. I know there will always be mistakes in articles, because things move so quickly. But I hate to see them in titles. So I really do appreciate it. And if you want to point out errors in the articles that’s great too.

        • I didn’t think you were. You should never stop yourself from criticizing me if you think I’m wrong. That would make the world a very boring place.

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