Monday, December 14, 2015

On Writing – And Gender Pronouns

One of the many stories credited to the great Yogi Berra occurred while he was doing the color commentary on a televised baseball game: A couple of flashers ran across the field.  When asked whether they were male or female, Berra reportedly said,“I don’t know. They had bags over their heads.”

One of the changes in American and Euro-culture is how we regard sexual orientation. Another is gender recognition. It seems to me that the English (American) language accommodates orientation.  However we don’t do so well with gender.  Truth is: We never have. At a time when we are accepting people whose gender is in transition, has transitioned or will remain fluid or unidentified at the owner’s wish, why must we categorize it.  We don’t bother sorting out the genders of those who constitute a “they,” “their” or “them,’ why do we need to use an imprecise, misleading word to describe (usually a second reference anyway) an individual person.

In a case of better never than late, The Washington Post just announced that when the gender is unknown, it is journalistically acceptable to use “they” or “their,” rather than the awkward “him or her” or “his or hers,” or “he/she/them.”  The problem with this is that pluralizing a pronoun isn’t the same as referring to gender. This has been a problem with an informal broken-down solution for many years, but it strikes me there is a much better solution. Simply develop a gender-neutral set of short words for singular, gender-free pronouns.

Sadly, in this case, language doesn’t change like this. We let the use of language determine its correctness. It’s a natural evolution.  The same goes for words in dictionaries. We don’t make up words, put them in the dictionary and hope people use them. In high school a group of us wanted to see if we could invent a word. We came up with “fledge.” It would be a response to such questions as “what did you do all day?” Our answer would be an active version of “Just hanging out.” We moved around, did things, but in the end accomplished little. We flidged. We dropped that word into every conversation we had – for a while.

Are you familiar with the word?  Of course not.  But maybe, just maybe, a larger group – LGBT people, for example – could come up with something and start a campaign. If not, I’ve just spent a good part of an afternoon flidging.

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