Date: Tue, 8 Nov 1994 11:04:07 -0400


Subject: Them singulars

Well, I did cause a fuss with those "they/them" singulars, didn't I.

I take Moonhawk's point:

I remember reading once that Meillet or one of those dead French linguists

had uncovered a substratum of animacy below/before the sex-gender

distinctions. English handles animacy really badly, which is another reason I

don't find the plural/singular conflation a problem, and why I for one

wouldn't mind if ikind of went away.

any living creature whose genitalia we're not interested

in or can't immediately tell (neighbor's new baby or dog, a tree, a whale, a

bug, a star we label 'IT', as if the creature is dead! I contend our

pronoun systems is subtly complicit in it-ting Mother Earth to death because

of this basic lack of formal respect. Note this is different from Romance

languages where masc/fem/neut are applied to all objects and beings equally,

without absolute dependence on sexual characteristics.

The English mixing of sexual and grammatical gender is unfortunate, and I guess

I too wouldn't mind if it went away. Only thing is, it won't, and I still

want to preserve whatever clarity the existing structures have. Actually I like

"her" for a generic pronounQnobody can seriously think it means only a female,

and it reminds the reader that the sexes ought to be linguistically equal. (And

every other "equal" too, in my belief).

I wonder if Bob is concerned more with a general breakdown in authority

for which I am also concerned. That's a different issue and one on about

which I know very little. But grammatical structure is alive and well.

Yes, ,Tim, I am concerned, and I do need to apologize for careless semantics in

the reference to "grammatical" structure. Although I saw (and see) such usages

as "them" singulars (especially in writing), as symptomatic of loss of clarity,

it was actually syntactic structure which I had in mind. Uncertain or

impenetrable syntactic structures are familiar to all of us who have read

student writing in the last two or three decades at least. I would agree that

"grammatical" structure has not suffered a general breakdownQ(and of course

that good usage in general reflects only the usage of careful speakers; "them"

singulars will certainly be standard in fifty or a hundred years, given the current

direction of development).

Bob Lancaster

SUNY-emeritus, English