"Ask Someone Why They Love Their BlackBerry" reads the headline on the full-page ad in today's New York Times.
Chalk up another lost battle in the war of the English pronouns.
Once upon a time, "someone" was a singular subject--just like "he," "she," and "it"--that required a singular possessive: "his" or "her." The default was "his," because, you know, the patriarchy and all. "Ask Someone Why He Loves His BlackBerry" would have been correct, and uncommented-upon, as recently as thirty years ago.
Some of us on the "she" side of the aisle found this--and a whole bunch of other things, like sex discrimination in the workplace--a tad unfair. We lost the Equal Rights Amendment, dammit, but we won the right to be sloppy about grammar.
English, an otherwise wonderful language, ties us into knots on this issue. All our personal pronouns for humans are either yin or yang, feminine or masculine. Remember the 1973 movie No Sex, Please, We're British? Well, where grammar is concerned, it's "Sex, please! We're speaking English!"
Writers have been grappling with this challenge not just for decades, but for centuries. Writing in the Language Log blog a couple of months ago, linguist Mark Liberman pointed out that the King James Version of the Bible is full of examples of the singular "they" (e.g., "in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then [sic!] themselues"). Read the follow-up post for more than you ever wanted to know about the history of this usage.
Every so often someone devises what seems to be a clever solution: an invented "epicene" (genderless) pronoun. The gender-neutrally named D.N. DeLuna (apparently a "she"), who is a writing instructor at Johns Hopkins University, recently came up with the one-size-fits-all "hu" (pronounced--I am not kidding--huh). An editorial writer in the Los Angeles Times considered "hu" and decided it "looked like a Vulcan vocabulary word."
I feel compelled to point out that in Hebrew, "hu" (pronounced hoo) means "he." And "hee" means "she," and "mee" means "who." Learning Hebrew is very confusing for English speakers.
Now comes Michael Berger in The Vocabula Review with an assortment of alternatives, which he presents in an article titled "Up with the English Epicene." Access to the article is restricted to subscribers (and if you're interested in language, you really should subscribe; it's cheap), but here's a snippet:
Here are some candidates for this esteemed role, to fill a need in the evolving English language:
he/she: esh, hesh, heesh, shehe
him/her: rim, mer, hmer, hrim
his/her: ris, ser, hris, hser
With such a set of gender-neutral pronouns in our arsenal, we could finally conveniently and candidly employ our language to refer with dignity and facility to both women and men in their capacity as equal human beings, regardless of gender. When we want to refer with a pronoun to the human being generically, instead of using the awkward he or she, or s/he, or she or he, or alternating genders, or acceding to the still awkward but consensually advancing plural, we could do so in a way that advances both human equality and linguistic grace and efficiency.
Uh-huh. Or perhaps "uh-hu." It's a valiant effort, but I don't think anyone in, um, their right mind is going to buy it.