Friday, July 8, 2011

Grammar v. Feminism?!

The two things that I defend most passionately on a daily basis are, irrefutably, feminism and proper grammar usage. Feminism is much more based on opinions, though, than grammar. Feminism is an ideological movement, intrinsically based upon opinions, for each person to agree or disagree with. Grammar is much more straightforward; its foundation is composed of rules of the English language that we, as a society, created, have evolved and now accept as fact. Because of the endless differences between two of my obsessions, I never thought there would be a conflict between them, but alas, there is.

Now, as I learned formally in freshman English, the pronoun and antecedent in a sentence must agree. (eg: her bike, his shirt, their toys.) This didn't used to be much of a problem, but with many more people attempting to avoid sexism, it is.

How could this be?!

Well, if a statement was being proposed in formal writing, the writer would be talking, most likely, about one individual, eg: "One must try hard to achieve _____ goal." This is where the problem lies. "One" is, quite obviously, one, but the majority of the time (at least for high school essay writers), "their" fills in the blank.

Their, although catering to both of the traditional genders, is NOT singular. It is plural. It would only be used accurately if it was "Therefore, people must be aware of their use of grammar."

We are told, then, to just get it over with and use he. We can only use one of the gendered pronouns, and of course, based on the traditon of patriarchy, the masculine one is the one formally accepted to be "right." But as a fervid advocate of grammar and the equality of the sexes... this just will not do. I will not just use he, because I am referring to a human being, gender unspecified.

Some people, as a rebuttal for this intrinsic antiquated sexism, use her exclusively, something which I've done in an essay or two. I lucked out having a teacher open to the idea, though; not all teachers are. The most common correct option is his or her or her or his, which can become tiresome if repeated frequently. My favorite is his/her; it's as if the two genders of the pronouns cancel each other out.

What we need is a gender neutral, singular pronoun. And apparently, I've recently learned, there is one, most popular in queer circles: hir. I've only seen it mentioned once, I believe in either Full Frontal Feminism or Female Chauvinist Pigs, getting a mention for a page or two. It's based on ze, a completely gender neutral personal pronoun for he/she. It was originated for those who don't identify with either the male or female gender, and it can encompass any gender identity. If it could make its way into contemporary society, this conundrum could be solved. However, it has not. And the scary question is: can it? The regulations of the English language have been around for centuries; can we really expect a change now? Will teachers and professors- most importantly, early elementary school teachers- be willing to change their traditions for the sake of gender?

I'm not really sure how I feel about this- will ze and hir work? Could our language evolve to be truly equal? This is just one example of many in which our language contains antiquated biases. Feel free to comment with your opinions :)

*I apologize for assuming that there are only two genders for parts of this post. I attempted to be completely inclusive, but grammar obviously isn't.
**All of this is applicable to the he/she debacle, too; it's essentually the same thing, just his/her are possessive pronouns and he/she are personal pronouns.
***I'm sure I've got grammar mistakes here too- my grammar is just as fallible as anything else, despite my love for it.


  1. I don't see how "hir" can succeed. How much different is "hir" from "her"? Not different enough imo.

  2. This is absolutely one of the sticking points of being a feminist copy editor! Many of my clients are women's publications so the default pronouns are feminine, and I've also worked at men's publications. So that's easy enough. But for general interest work...yeah, it gets tricky. I actually just rewrite the sentence most of the time to cast it in plural, because I feel like "hir" et al stops the reader. My goal as a copy editor is to make language elegant and readable--anything that stops the reader is to be avoided. And sometimes that can be used effectively--using gender-neutral pronouns to illustrate the need for gender-neutral language is a good use of it, for example, as is using it when addressing a savvier crowd. But I think that for most places I'd rather do a gender-neutral workaround. I prefer pluralizing, or I'll go ahead and do "her or him" (and yes, I do "her or him," and if someone "corrects" it I explain that it's alphabetical!). Sometimes I'll alternate, using "him" in one sentence and "her" in another," but I think that can be confusing for the reader. In any case, I'm pleased to report that I rarely get any pushback from editors--truly, language has changed because of feminism. Our work isn't done, but it's happening.

  3. I agree with Autumn above. As an editor, I tend to make the sentence plural, which you normally can do so that everything agrees. I personally use the pronouns zie and zir, but that's an illustration of how gender-netural pronouns are tricky. You say ze, I say zie. You say hir, I say zir. (I used to use hir, incidentally, but realized that out loud, it's a little ambiguous, so zir is clearer if not as easy to say quickly). Many people use different pronouns--ou, for example, is becoming more popular. As a grammarian and a genderqueer person, I'm torn because we don't have a really elegant solution to this, gramatically. Gender neutral pronouns are a good idea, but they do throw people. I use them for myself but would not use them to mean the generic third person, because it's jarring.

  4. @Bill- I agree that the phonetic similarly may be too great.
    @Autumn- It's interesting/unfortunate that making it flow and be grammatically must be sacrificed for political correctness. Switching the whole sentence to plural is what I tend to do as well.
    @Judith- Thanks for sharing how you use the pronouns! I don't know anyone who actually does (I've only read of it), so I appreciate your opinion. :)

  5. Your conflict is illusory. Such contortions over personal pronouns are the consequence of a belief that grammar is a set of prescriptive rules, whereas it is simply an attempt to describe systematically how a language is organised.
    Unfortunately some of these rules are vestiges of a time when English was regarded as inferior to classical languages, particularly Latin, then the languages of learning. Linguists have been aware for several centuries however that grammatically languages are equally rich but are differently organised. English and Latin both have verbs, prepositions and pronouns but they manipulate and exploit them differently. Insisting that the only singular personal pronouns in English are gendered, like Latin, is an archaic prejudice against English, not unlike that against women, and just as ignorant.
    Unlike Latin large swathes of English grammar are not gendered, e.g. nouns, adjectives, etc., as too are other parts of speeech which do not even display number (singular or plural) either, e.g. most tense inflections, relative pronouns, and, significantly here, 2nd person pronouns (you, yours) and some 3rd person pronouns (they, their). English is more artful than Latin! There is ample historical evidence for all of this in respectable English writing back to the 17th century. Other languages are not organised like Latin either, including their pronouns (e.g. si, ci, lei, in Italian, Japanese pronouns and inflections indicating degrees of respect, etc.).
    The solution to your problem is to use English fully and enjoy it, not genuflect to silly prejudices which restrict it. Anyone who tells you there is no ungendered 3rd person singular pronoun in English is an unwitting victim of prejudice, which is particularly ironic when they do so in the name of feminism. (This last sentence is in good English and employs the pronoun several times for its singular subject.)
    PS. I've taught university students, and tutored their writing, for years. Your writing is brilliant: vibrant, crisp and clear. Keep polishing and don't let the grammar police fetter you.