New pronouns for a new year

January 02, 2003|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - I care about how the English language is used, and I'm far from happy with all that's happening to our language today.

Some of my concerns are aesthetic. As some care on which side of the plate the fork is placed, I care whether the rules of grammar are followed. When I hear someone say "for you and I," I cringe.

It seems that the chastising of generations of people for saying "Me and John went to the store" has engendered a national allergy to the word "me." Just between you and I, one hears even many educated and prominent people making "I" the object of a preposition.

I won't even discuss here how "me" has been swallowed up by the word "myself," even though the practice is most offensive to myself.

Beyond the aesthetics, there is the ongoing corruption of meaning of perfectly good words and phrases.

Some battles seem already lost, such as the effort to maintain inviolate the connection between "anxiety" and "anxious." Regrettably, the use of "anxious" as a synonym for "eager," having gained momentum over decades, will likely soon be wholly legitimized.

But the corruption of the phrase "that begs the question" is of much more recent vintage, and thus more likely reversible. It seems only in the past couple years that I've begun to hear "begs the question" used as if it means "raises the question." What a shame it would be to lose its real, long-established meaning: to stack the deck of logical argument by making one's supposed conclusion into an assumption. It allows an economy in pointing out circular reasoning that's otherwise not readily available.

I could - believe me! - go on. (There's my lament of the displacement in recent years of the gracious "You're welcome!" with the dismissive - or at least minimizing - phrase, "No problem.")

But I've exposed my cranky and reactionary side enough. Language is, I know, not a static thing. Much of what I regard as proper and established was once, I realize, an offense to earlier generations of cranks. For one example, I gather that the past-tense suffix "ed" was always a separate syllable, so that - but for some linguistic innovators eager (if not anxious) to economize on syllables - the very word "established" would have four syllables.

Well, if language is to be open to innovation, I have one to propose:

We desperately need a new set of pronouns that are both singular and gender neutral.

The breakdown of male chauvinism is certainly to be celebrated, but it has wreak-ed havoc on our language. No longer can we use "he" and "his" to stand for all man/woman-kind. But the writer of even finely crafted prose will become frustrated by the inelegance he or she must inflict on his or her writing in order to be inclusive.

One solution avoids the clunkiness of using both male and female pronouns at every turn by overlooking the grammatical problem of a disagreement in number. A private school in New Mexico, for example, advertises that it gives "every child the personal attention they need." My students also tend to opt for this solution of turning a singular "person" into a plural "they." And who can blame them - given the options?

It's time for new options: a third-person singular pronoun besides "it" (with its depersonalizing, not to say neutering, connotations).

Hence my proposal:

Be it resolved that henceforth: he/she be replaced by "het"; his/her by "hes"; and him/her by "hem."

Language is ours to make. (This is not France!) This sorely needed innovation can become a part of the language, if enough of us implement the change. Power to the people.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer who teaches American studies at the Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico.

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