There 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.
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.