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qu'est-ce qu'on dit?

Brian Weatherson started a conversation over at Crooked Timber about whether or not he can ever be used generically. Brian notes, "English has a perfectly adequate gender-neutral pronoun - they - and it should be used instead of he in these contexts." There's a little backstory as well about the Canadian Supreme Court having once (back in 1927) ruled that women didn't count as "persons." And yes, they were quickly overruled.

One of the commenters makes reference to an essay that I myself had forgotten about, Douglas Hofstadter's A Person Paper on Purity in Language, a satirical essay that imagines making the "he is gender-neutral" argument in a world where pronouns were based on race rather than gender:

Most of the clamor, as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun "white" and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, strawwhite, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word "white," either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism.

Hofstadter is a fave of mine from way back, and PPPL is a tour-de-force, not only reproducing/parodying all of the bad arguments on behalf of the generic he, but also bringing to our attention all of the little ways that gendered pronouns and language usage function near-invisibly. It's hard for me to imagine anyone being able to use the generic he after reading H's essay. The solution that most people seem on board with is the occasional use of they as singular, although this tactic has its detractors as well. Me? I'm growing increasing fond of hir, although I've yet to try getting it past an editorial board. Most of the time, I find that it takes very little to adjust a sentence and remove the problem altogether. I suspect that, after a while, most people just internalize it and move on. Still, it was cool to go back and read a little Hofstadter, which I haven't done (I don't think) since I was working on my dissertation...


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» Every man for herself from Philosophical Fortnights
Brian Weatherson at Crooked Timber has re-opened the question of the generic third-person pronoun in English. He says he has been convinced by Geoffrey Pullum that there is no dialect of English in which [Read More]


I remember Luanne going off about "they" in the place of he. A definitely problem for her :) I see people use they more and more now. I managed to get "hir" past the editors for my article in Blakesley's collection. I had to make the argument that it was representative of a gender problematic I was talking about in the essay. Doubt I'll be able to get away with it again. Journal editors seemed to be obsessed with this kind of stuff. ;)