f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

April 10, 2004

Pronoun Wars: say no to “em,” yes to “de”

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 3:52 am

 eKeyS mKeyS . . ??

 

[Weakend Special]  Until reading Scheherazade’s post yesterday, this middle-aged guy didn’t know there was an “em” phenomenon, much less a related controversy.  It seems that “em” is used by a number of writers as a gender-neutral pronoun — for both subject and object.  Lately, The Uncivil Litigator has been thinking, and inviting comments, about the use of gender-neutral pronouns, and has collected some links on the topic.


Indeed, it was UCL who “inspired” Scheherazade’s post, which argues against the use of “em” (or any epicene pronoun) to mask the gender of the subject person.  My summary of Sherry’s position is “if gender isn’t important to the story, just pick one; don’t make up an annoying pronoun.”  UCL thinks there are times when you owe it to the subject to make sure her or his identity can’t be determined from reading the piece; UCL also thinks just picking or switching genders is “lying” to your audience.  If it matters, I agree stylistically with Sherry.   On a practical level, it also seems that masking the gender may not solve UCL‘s problem of keeping the subject’s identity secret.  If readers would know who the person is when his or her gender is specified, masking the gender probably offers little protection.

 

On the broader issue of using gender-neutral singular pronouns (when gender is unknown or irrelevant), I’m not really convinced we need them.  [To me, it’s the males who get the short end of the traditional linguistic stick in the context of pronouns — they don’t have one of their own, since “he” encompasses both genders.  But, it’s an injustice we are willing to accept in deference to history, and to avoid the pain of change.]  As Evan Schaeffer said in a comment to UCL:


hKeyS eKeyS  “This is one of those topics upon which you will never please everyone, but . . . on my site, I try to use the plural ‘they’ whenever possible, but often this isn’t possible. In those cases, I use ‘he.’ I’ve always felt this was the language that was handed down to us, etc. Well, lately I started changing my mind somewhat, and began substituting ‘she’ every now and then. My wife, who serves an my editor from time to time, said this was absurb. I should stick with “he,” she told me. She’s always taken the non-specific ‘he’ to mean ‘he or she.’ So I’ve got to go with my wife — ‘he’ it is.”

Nonetheless, I understand why others disagree with this position and would want to create and use gender-neutral pronouns.  Although I’m not a linguist, I do have some suggestions for those who want to achieve this goal (after at least ten hours thinking really hard about it).  

 

The biggest problem with introducing any important new terminology into a language, of course, is that it will be jarring to many in the audience, create confusion and annoyance, and meet with resistance.   In addition, the existence of competing neologisms will further retard and maybe defeat the process.  



  • For example, after a couple of decades, even the convention of “he/she” and “his/her” still grates on many when seen in print — and it is way too clumsy when speaking.


  • Similarly, the “they/their” controversy still rages, with traditionalists still insisting that they are plural forms that should never be used with singular antecedents.  Proponents, on the other hand, insist there is a long and glorious history of using the terms, and they want the grammar police to lighten up.  I’m not fond of the singular use of they or their, and am tickled by its etymology: “Middle English, from Old Norse their, masculine pl. demonstrative and personal pron.”

“delete key neg” . .


If we wanted to cultivate a set of non-gender-specific pronouns that refer to human beings — and make it as acceptable and useful as possible that the choice of pronouns should have the following characteristics:



  1. As with “he/his/him” and “she/hers/her”, there must be subject, possessive and object forms of the pronoun.


  2. Each pronoun form should be reasonably attractive to look at, say and hear — and its pronunciation and spelling should be apparent to the vast majority of readers and listeners.


  3. The pronoun forms should also correspond as much as possible with the forms used in he/his/him and she/hers/her: (a) like he and she, the subjective form should start with a consonant and have the “long e” vowel sound; (b) like his and hers, the possessive form should end with an “s”; and (c) the objective form should either end in a consonant other than the “m” in him or the “r” in her, or should blend the two into “-rm.”


  4. If possible, the new words should not have homonyms, connotations, or foreign translations, that detract from their acceptance, seriousness, or clarity.

Using the above (rather reasonable and persuasive) criteria, “em” badly needs to be deleted from the list of candidates.  There are lots of reasons, beyond not looking or sounding right:



  • em” is already a word and it means the letter “m”  —  in our language, “M” is regularly used to designate “male”. 


  • the acronym “EM” has lots of meanings, including:



    • EM: enlisted man (A male member of the armed forces who ranks below a commissioned officer or warrant officer.)


    • EM: (law) A brand or stigma, having the shape of an M, formerly impressed on one convicted of manslaughter and admitted to the benefit of clergy.


  • because it is used for subject and object, and has no possessive form, “em” is inadequate as a substitute for forms of he and she — in fact, it’s more like a lowercase nickname or subsitute name for the person (who you might just as well call “X”, which is the custom in our language);

dKeyS eKeyS  If we rule out “em”, and follow the suggested criteria above, the most appropriate options for the subject form of a gender-neutral pronoun appear to be: de, ve and ze.   [Click here, if you are dying to know why other options seem unsuitable to me.]  Of these three, my preference is “de” (pronounced “dee”).  Granted, the word de might be confused with the State of Delaware, or derided as Brooklynese for “the,” but it seems far less exotic than ze (which has a French accent, don’t you think?), or than ve.



  • And, “de” has an appropriate linguistic history:  In Dutch, it is (1) used to refer to a particular person or thing, or group of people or things, already mentioned, implied or known; or (2) used before a singular noun: denoting all the members of a group or class.

If de is the subjective form of the pronoun, I would suggest “darm” for the objective form and “darms” for the possessive, utilzing the “r” from her and the “m” from him.  Using the vowel “a” avoids the “i” in his and him and the “e” in hers and her.  (On the other hand, “o” yields “dorm”, which is confusing to students, teachers, administrators, and parents; “u” makes funny-looking little words, and conjures up dum-de-dum-dum; and “y” as a vowel in the middle of a word just plain scares away the non-radical.)


prof yabut small flip  So, advocates for having and using a gender-neutral pronoun need to unite on a single set of pronouns and inform the English-speaking world of their goal.  If anyone disagrees with the choice of de/darms/darm, de should leave darms opinion in our Comment box.  I thank darm in advance.  For those who don’t feel an urgent need for gender-neutral pronouns, I suggest adopting a position of bemusement rather than annoyance — it cuts down on the agita.

Update (04-12-04): Check out Uncivil Litigator‘s contemplative continuation of this discussion here.  I hope readers can tell from the pensive post above, that I have little or no emotional, adversarial, or professional stake in the great GNP debate.  If I did, I’d list all the very good points above that UCL ignores when concluding that de is “not any less or more attractive than “em”.  [If one/de used em-oticons, this would be a very good place for one.]  Although the Comment Meter is not working below, click here for UCL’s Comment to this Update.

Pronoun Wars: say no to “em,” yes to “de”

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 3:52 am

 eKeyS mKeyS . . ??

 

[Weakend Special]  Until reading Scheherazade’s post yesterday, this middle-aged guy didn’t know there was an “em” phenomenon, much less a related controversy.  It seems that “em” is used by a number of writers as a gender-neutral pronoun — for both subject and object.  Lately, The Uncivil Litigator has been thinking, and inviting comments, about the use of gender-neutral pronouns, and has collected some links on the topic.


Indeed, it was UCL who “inspired” Scheherazade’s post, which argues against the use of “em” (or any epicene pronoun) to mask the gender of the subject person.  My summary of Sherry’s position is “if gender isn’t important to the story, just pick one; don’t make up an annoying pronoun.”  UCL thinks there are times when you owe it to the subject to make sure her or his identity can’t be determined from reading the piece; UCL also thinks just picking or switching genders is “lying” to your audience.  If it matters, I agree stylistically with Sherry.   On a practical level, it also seems that masking the gender may not solve UCL‘s problem of keeping the subject’s identity secret.  If readers would know who the person is when his or her gender is specified, masking the gender probably offers little protection.

 

On the broader issue of using gender-neutral singular pronouns (when gender is unknown or irrelevant), I’m not really convinced we need them.  [To me, it’s the males who get the short end of the traditional linguistic stick in the context of pronouns — they don’t have one of their own, since “he” encompasses both genders.  But, it’s an injustice we are willing to accept in deference to history, and to avoid the pain of change.]  As Evan Schaeffer said in a comment to UCL:


hKeyS eKeyS  “This is one of those topics upon which you will never please everyone, but . . . on my site, I try to use the plural ‘they’ whenever possible, but often this isn’t possible. In those cases, I use ‘he.’ I’ve always felt this was the language that was handed down to us, etc. Well, lately I started changing my mind somewhat, and began substituting ‘she’ every now and then. My wife, who serves an my editor from time to time, said this was absurb. I should stick with “he,” she told me. She’s always taken the non-specific ‘he’ to mean ‘he or she.’ So I’ve got to go with my wife — ‘he’ it is.”

Nonetheless, I understand why others disagree with this position and would want to create and use gender-neutral pronouns.  Although I’m not a linguist, I do have some suggestions for those who want to achieve this goal (after at least ten hours thinking really hard about it).  

 

The biggest problem with introducing any important new terminology into a language, of course, is that it will be jarring to many in the audience, create confusion and annoyance, and meet with resistance.   In addition, the existence of competing neologisms will further retard and maybe defeat the process.  



  • For example, after a couple of decades, even the convention of “he/she” and “his/her” still grates on many when seen in print — and it is way too clumsy when speaking.


  • Similarly, the “they/their” controversy still rages, with traditionalists still insisting that they are plural forms that should never be used with singular antecedents.  Proponents, on the other hand, insist there is a long and glorious history of using the terms, and they want the grammar police to lighten up.  I’m not fond of the singular use of they or their, and am tickled by its etymology: “Middle English, from Old Norse their, masculine pl. demonstrative and personal pron.”

“delete key neg” . .


If we wanted to cultivate a set of non-gender-specific pronouns that refer to human beings — and make it as acceptable and useful as possible that the choice of pronouns should have the following characteristics:



  1. As with “he/his/him” and “she/hers/her”, there must be subject, possessive and object forms of the pronoun.


  2. Each pronoun form should be reasonably attractive to look at, say and hear — and its pronunciation and spelling should be apparent to the vast majority of readers and listeners.


  3. The pronoun forms should also correspond as much as possible with the forms used in he/his/him and she/hers/her: (a) like he and she, the subjective form should start with a consonant and have the “long e” vowel sound; (b) like his and hers, the possessive form should end with an “s”; and (c) the objective form should either end in a consonant other than the “m” in him or the “r” in her, or should blend the two into “-rm.”


  4. If possible, the new words should not have homonyms, connotations, or foreign translations, that detract from their acceptance, seriousness, or clarity.

Using the above (rather reasonable and persuasive) criteria, “em” badly needs to be deleted from the list of candidates.  There are lots of reasons, beyond not looking or sounding right:



  • em” is already a word and it means the letter “m”  —  in our language, “M” is regularly used to designate “male”. 


  • the acronym “EM” has lots of meanings, including:



    • EM: enlisted man (A male member of the armed forces who ranks below a commissioned officer or warrant officer.)


    • EM: (law) A brand or stigma, having the shape of an M, formerly impressed on one convicted of manslaughter and admitted to the benefit of clergy.


  • because it is used for subject and object, and has no possessive form, “em” is inadequate as a substitute for forms of he and she — in fact, it’s more like a lowercase nickname or subsitute name for the person (who you might just as well call “X”, which is the custom in our language);

dKeyS eKeyS  If we rule out “em”, and follow the suggested criteria above, the most appropriate options for the subject form of a gender-neutral pronoun appear to be: de, ve and ze.   [Click here, if you are dying to know why other options seem unsuitable to me.]  Of these three, my preference is “de” (pronounced “dee”).  Granted, the word de might be confused with the State of Delaware, or derided as Brooklynese for “the,” but it seems far less exotic than ze (which has a French accent, don’t you think?), or than ve.



  • And, “de” has an appropriate linguistic history:  In Dutch, it is (1) used to refer to a particular person or thing, or group of people or things, already mentioned, implied or known; or (2) used before a singular noun: denoting all the members of a group or class.

If de is the subjective form of the pronoun, I would suggest “darm” for the objective form and “darms” for the possessive, utilzing the “r” from her and the “m” from him.  Using the vowel “a” avoids the “i” in his and him and the “e” in hers and her.  (On the other hand, “o” yields “dorm”, which is confusing to students, teachers, administrators, and parents; “u” makes funny-looking little words, and conjures up dum-de-dum-dum; and “y” as a vowel in the middle of a word just plain scares away the non-radical.)


prof yabut small flip  So, advocates for having and using a gender-neutral pronoun need to unite on a single set of pronouns and inform the English-speaking world of their goal.  If anyone disagrees with the choice of de/darms/darm, de should leave darms opinion in our Comment box.  I thank darm in advance.  For those who don’t feel an urgent need for gender-neutral pronouns, I suggest adopting a position of bemusement rather than annoyance — it cuts down on the agita.

Update (04-12-04): Check out Uncivil Litigator‘s contemplative continuation of this discussion here.  I hope readers can tell from the pensive post above, that I have little or no emotional, adversarial, or professional stake in the great GNP debate.  If I did, I’d list all the very good points above that UCL ignores when concluding that de is “not any less or more attractive than “em”.  [If one/de used em-oticons, this would be a very good place for one.]  Although the Comment Meter is not working below, click here for UCL’s Comment to this Update.

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