Saturday, October 18, 2008


How many?

It’s that time again: time for my local public radio station to have its “membership drive”, when they interrupt their programs constantly with interminable harangues about why you should give them money. The thing is, I do give them money, but that doesn’t stop me from having to lose Morning Edition and All Things Considered three times a year to this membership drive. They call it that because it drives one away from the radio.

No worries, though. I use these times to catch up on “podcasts”, which appears to be what we’ve taken to calling “mp3 files” when they’re talk instead of music. I have quite a stash of them just waiting for my commutes during membership drives, or time spent in airports and airplanes. Mostly, they’re episodes of This American Life — I have a lot of them queued up — along with certain other selections that I thought would be interesting, bits from Fresh Air, Bob Edwards Weekend, and WNYC talk shows hosted by Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate.

Yesterday, I listened to some Bob Edwards Weekend pieces, talks with Jackson Browne, Julian Barnes, and Spike Lee. And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s turned into another language gripe.

Not because of anything Mr Browne, Mr Barnes, or Mr Lee said, mind. It was triggered by this announcement during a pause in the program:

Bob Edwards Weekend is supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance to live a healthy, productive life.

I found myself mentally paraphrasing Nathan Hale: “I regret," I thought, “that I have but one life to share with all my countrymen.”

Now, I have to say that I am one of those who stickles for not using “they” as a singular pronoun. I suppose I’m willing to accept it when it’s the only reasonable way to say something without being awkward or stilted. Most of the time, though, what one wants to say can be done properly, matched in number and still gender-neutral,[1] with a bit of re-wording. Usually that re-wording involves putting the whole sentence in plural.

And that’d be one correct solution here, even though there is not a “they” to be seen: “dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance to live healthy, productive lives.” The thing is that it’s such an obvious way to write it... this one isn’t hard at all; there’s not even a danger of having gender sneak into that sentence.

The difficulty is usually with a sentence like, “Everyone must show his or her driver’s license before entering the secure area.” The lazy way to avoid the tedious “his or her”[2] is to turn it into “their”, even though one needs a singular pronoun here. Substituting “one’s” is even worse than using “their”: it’s correct in number, but so horridly stilted and un-idiomatic. But the right fix is simple, if one isn’t so worried about minimizing changes, and is willing to do slightly more re-writing: “All travellers [or all persons, or whatever] must show their driver’s licenses before entering the secure area.”

For the foundation’s slogan, by the way, there’s also a second approach. We can replace “all people” with “each person”, or, more simply, “everyone”: “dedicated to the idea that everyone deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life.” Now the singular works fine.

As with most of these complaints, it’s not just that I’m picking at nits. There’s no problem understanding that slogan as written, even with the inconsistency in number. But there are times when being sloppy with it creates ambiguity or otherwise confuses the reader. We owe it to our readers to allow them to save their effort for understanding clever turns of phrase and interesting nuances. We shouldn’t make them work so hard for nothing, to fill the gap created by our ineptitude.

If we get used to doing it wrong, we’ll soon be doing it wrong without ever knowing it.

[1] And we have a far easier time of making things gender-neutral than do people who speak other languages. In English, we don’t have gender for inanimate objects (two genders in Spanish and French, three in German), and we don’t have to match the adjectives or the pronouns to the gender of the nouns. Actually, I don’t worry so much about making my language gender-neutral. Most things just work out that way without a lot of effort, and at other times I just like to mix it around, sometimes making something feminine that would have traditionally been said with “he”.

[2] I don’t mind an occasional “he or she” or “his or her”; it’s when we get into endless strings of them — a trap that’s easy to be caught in — that I want to jump off a cliff rather than read further.

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Why even bring "they" into it, especially if you think it's not gender-related? (Not that "they" is really gender-related, that's just the impetus for overriding the idiotic "he" rule.)

This is a different problem altogether. They've examined it at the Log (here's the latest) and the choice between singular and plural seems much less clear cut than you'd think (generic you).

"What we'll learn is that the distributed meaning of the plural "their heads" — one per individual — is sanctioned by the habitual usage of many esteemed writers. The singular version "their head" has two interpretations, one that is semantically singular (meaning "their leader" or the like), and one where again there are many heads, distributed one per individual. In the distributed meaning, where each individual has a unique and individual head, the plural heads is substantially more common than the singular head; use of the singular is roughly equally divided between its two meanings," says Mark Liberman, and he adduces some nice old examples, such as

1658 J. ROBINSON Eudoxa v. 142 They dare not seem to worship the bread, by kneeling before it; yet will they reverence it with their head bare; which is no gesture befitting familiar accumbency, and fraternal communion.

1671 MILTON Samson 192 In prosperous days They swarm, but in adverse withdraw their head.

1607 TOPSELL Four-footed Beasts (1673) 7 Yet is their head and tip of their tail yellow, so that the Martins before mentioned, seem to be affianced to these.

It's true that usually people use the plural (lives in your example), but the singular with a distributive meaning is hardly unheard of.