Every writer needs to maintain a high standard of grammar and have a good understanding of key components of writing. This time, I discuss gendered language.
On a fine January day, during the women’s singles final of the Australian Open tennis tournament, there was an incident. This incident involved a line call, a corrected line call, a chair umpire…and a conspicuous grammatical error.
This is what happened: during a point of the match, the ball reached the base line, and the linesperson cried out. A split-second later, however, the linesperson was on her feet, and everything was confusion. She exchanged a few words with the chair umpire.
The chair umpire then announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the linesperson called the ball out, and then corrected themselves. We will now replay the point.’
The chair umpire copped a few annoyed comments and there was a general murmuring of discontent from the crowd, but I imagine that dissatisfaction had something to do with the tennis game. I was affronted for a different reason. The incident alarmed the finely tuned grammatical sensitivities of this humble pedant.
Why had the umpire used the word ‘themselves’ instead of ‘herself’? ‘Themselves’ is a reflexive pronoun used when referring to more than one person. When there is only one person, the applicable pronoun is either ‘herself’ or ‘himself’. The umpire should simply have said, ‘the linesperson called the ball out, and then corrected herself.’
I was dumbfounded at this grammatical mutation and can find no justification for it. Everyone watching the game could see that the person who had run up to the umpire was a woman. The only explanation that occurred to me, which explained why the umpire had faltered just before saying the word ‘themselves’, was that the (female) umpire was afraid to acknowledge the sex of the person who had made the mistake.
To me, this was not only terrible grammar (using a plural where a singular belonged) but also political correctness gone mad. If the umpire had used the correct pronoun, there would hardly have been a riot over the fact that the mistake was made by a woman, because we all know that one doesn’t need to be a woman to make such a mistake.
By using gender-neutral language in this ridiculous and pointless way (pointless because the TV cameras were for a while thereafter aimed at the female linesperson), the umpire has actually inadvertently drawn attention to gender. Those of you who take an interest in the modern development of the English language would be aware that this is by no means an isolated incident.
Why are we so afraid of using gendered pronouns? We can replace gendered words like ‘air hostess’ with neutral terms like ‘flight attendant’, but as long as the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ and their variants exist, we cannot avoid acknowledging the sex of the subject. Why should we want to avoid it?
Well, a writer wants to avoid gendered language when seeking to address an audience of both males and females. Gender-neutral language is useful because it is more inclusive, but that does not mean that grammar need be sacrificed.
A writer may also prefer to avoid gendered language when it makes a sentence clumsy. So instead of writing, ‘Please ensure that your child brings his or her sports uniform to school’ or ‘Please ensure that your child takes care of their personal belongings’, it is preferable to write, ‘Please note that all children must bring their sports uniforms to school’ or ‘Please ensure that your child brings sports uniform to school and takes care of all personal belongings’. In the first example I adopted the plural throughout and in the second I sidestepped the pesky pronoun problem altogether.
Using the second person can provide another way around third-person pronouns and is a useful way to engage directly with the reader. So while the sentence, ‘The reader may like to make up his/her own mind about this’ can be replaced with ‘Readers can make up their own minds about this,’ the only way to remove the distance created through third person is to reform the sentence in second person: ‘You can make up your own mind about this.’
I have written many essays in my time as a student and have come to a conclusion that making a choice between ‘he’ or ‘she’ and ‘he/she’ and the controversial ‘they’ is not necessary because a sentence can always be restructured to avoid having to nominate a gender-neutral third-person pronoun.
So although I think it’s a pity that English, unlike some other languages, has no commonly used third-person gender-neutral pronoun, this lacuna is no excuse for bad grammar. We must all confront the challenge of third-person pronouns in order to rid the world of grammatical corruptions like the one that inspired this article.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 371 (March–May 2011).
Image source: Wikimedia Commons