Do you know what's handy about English? Do you know what's really, exquisitely super-convenient about this language?
For all its ten thousand maddening idiosyncrasies, English does not make you mess with grammatical gender. You can get pulled over without having to remember that it's el problema but la policía. You can dress up for the 7-11 without having to know that socks are feminine, shoes are masculine, and shirt is neuter. In English, men are he, women are she, and everything else is it.
Or is it?
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Well, first of all: we do actually have a tiny, vestigial, appendix-like finger of grammatical gender still hanging on to the lower intestine of our language. Can you guess what it is?
Yep: ships, planes, and sometimes countries are 'she', despite their lack of literal feminine assets. (Taking the occasional carved mermaid's considerable endowments out of the equation, that is.)
Still, you're never going to get angry comments on your Gilligan's Island slashfic because you referred to the SS Minnow as an 'it' instead of a 'she'. This peculiar little tradition is the linguistic equivalent of David Schwimmer's career: you are free to ignore it completely and without consequence.
So where does gender actually matter in English?
Well, let's look at a sample sentence.
Seems pretty legit, right?
Here's the problem, if you want to call it that: whoever is just one person - we don't know who it is, but we know there's only one! - but their is supposed to refer to more than one person. (Another way to tell whether whoever is singular or plural is to check on the verbs in the sentence: we'd say 'he keeps' or 'she keeps' but not 'they keeps'.)
So technically, this should read:
Not quite as snappy, is it?
That's one of the reasons why we ignore this rule constantly in our everyday lives. English has no gender-neutral pronoun to use when we want to refer to a single unspecified person (because using "it" for people makes you sound like Lotion-Cat.) So we jump over to the words for multiple unspecified people and use them with free-wheeling abandon.
Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.
You can hold a newborn baby, but don't bounce them.
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This is so prevalent and so convenient that even the Chicago Manual of Style wavers on the issue. However, it's widely tut-tutted in academic circles - the SAT, for example, marks this use of they/them/their as wrong (as do most of the teachers and professors I know.)
Conclusion? Keep using 'they' in your everyday writing, but be ready to shift to 'he or she' when your composition needs to look its Sunday best.
You could also just switch to 'he', 'him', and 'his', but some readers will regard that as a politically incorrect faux pas.
Speaking of which!
Let's talk for a second about gender-specific titles.
This one might not be the best to lead off with (did you know that a female masseur is a masseuse?) but you've seen plenty of others: salesman, stewardess, comedienne, etc.
Gender-specific titles are falling ever further out of fashion, because they tend to reinforce the idea that a certain job belongs to a certain gender. "Oh, she's an actress - you know, like an actor, but a girl!" Which to many folks implies that the 'main' job - of actor, steward, waiter, etc. - is that of a man, and we tack on the '-ess' when a woman - bless her heart! - wants to try her pretty little hand at gainful employment.
This is not a one-way street, either: how often do we legitimately need to distinguish between men and women in the nursing field, and how often is 'male nurse' just being used to humiliate Greg Focker?
So, when you are writing for formal or professional occasions, try this. If you are talking about a hypothetical person or group of people, aim for a gender-neutral job title: mail carrier instead of mailman, firefighter instead of fireman, chair instead of chairman. If you are talking about a specific individual, then you can use the gendered form as appropriate. Or best of all: look them up and find out what they call themselves. (See? There's that lazy singular 'they' again. Don't we always do that!)
The Economist: Singular "They" - an excellent article discussing the pros and cons
The Atlantic Wire: The Singular "They" Must Be Stopped - a decidedly more unilateral opinion
Gender Neutral Language - style guide for publications at Sarah Lawrence College
Gender Neutral Language - a ten-question quiz: can you edit these ten sentences for gender neutrality?
Gender-Sensitive Language - a well-researched style guide, with a handy checklist at the bottom of the page
Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!
1. Rear Admiral Peaches
2. Moses, courtesy of Gary
3. Pete* and Pete, courtesy of my superlative sister
4. Rags, courtesy of Susannah (crossplaying - Rags is just about the cutest lady-cat you will ever meet)
(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat? Sign up here!)