Today is the birthday of C.C. Converse (1832-1918), an American attorney and composer of church music who is perhaps best known for his attempt to fix a glitch in the English language: its absence of a gender-neutral singular pronoun (1).
The glitch that Converse was attempting to repair can be seen in the following sentences. Which one sentence would you select as correct?
- When a person arrives at work, he should check his phone messages.
- When a person arrives at work, she should check her phone messages.
- When a person arrives at work, he or she should check his or her phone messages
- When a person arrives at work, s/he should check his/er phone messages.
- When a person arrives at work, they should check their phone messages.
This is a bit of a trick question because each sentence has its own problems:
Sentence A uses the pronoun he, assuming the gender of a person is male. Although some in the past have argued that the masculine pronoun should become the default generic pronoun, embracing the feminine, most people today see this as an unacceptable sexist usage.
Sentence B has the same problem as Sentence A. Some writers will randomly alternate the use of the masculine and feminine pronouns to avoid charges of sexism, but this can be confusing and distracting to the reader.
Sentence C, while attempting to avoid exclusive use of either one or the other pronoun, adds an element of clunkiness by adding the conjunction “or,” especially when used repeatedly.
Sentence D is just plain awkward.
Sentence E creates an ungrammatical situation in which the antecedent of the singular noun person is the plural they and their.
Columnist Lucy Mangan captures a typical writer’s frustration in the following rant:
The whole pronouns-must-agree-with-antecedents thing causes me utter agony. Do you know how many paragraphs I’ve had to tear down and rebuild because you can’t say, “Somebody left their cheese in the fridge”, so you say, “Somebody left his/her cheese in the fridge”, but then you need to refer to his/her cheese several times thereafter and your writing ends up looking like an explosion in a pedants’ factory? Billions, that’s how many. Even if the Queen, Noam Chomsky and Stephen Fry said it was permissible to use “their” to refer to a defiantly singular, sexless something, I couldn’t. It’s not right, and for once its wrongness is mathematically provable. Look. 1 = 1. 1 not = 2. I crave a non-risible gender-neutral (not “it”) third person singular pronoun in the way normal women my age crave babies (3).
In an attempt to solve the problem, Converse coined the word thon in 1858, blending the two words “that one.” If we apply Converse’s coinage to our sentence it becomes:
When a person arrives at work thon should check thons phone messages.
Obviously Converse’s new pronoun didn’t stick; instead, it joined the pool of other pathetic, failed pronouns of the past, such as: ne, co, xie, per, en, hi, le, hiser, ip. However, credit is due Converse in that Thon is the most successful attempt at a solution to date. Thon made it into two dictionaries and was actually adopted by some writers, as we can see by this example from a psychology textbook published in 1895 by Henry Graham Williams:
Every student should acquaint thonself with some method by which thon can positively correlate the facts of thons knowledge (1).
As of today we are still stuck without a solution to our pronoun glitch. So when a person comes upon this thorny thicket in his/her/his or her/their writing, he/she/he or she/they remain without many good options.
Today’s Challenge: Playing with Pronouns and Points of View
If you were to write a story, from what narrative point of view would you tell the story? When creating a fictional narrative, authors must consider point of view, the lense through which the reader sees and hears the story. Point of view in fiction correlates to the grammatical point of view of pronouns:
First Person – I: In the first person point of view a character in the story is the narrator, which allows the reader to see and experience the plot intimately. However, just as in our own lives this can be limiting since we are only privy to the thoughts, experience, and perspective of that single character.
Second Person – You: In the second person point of view, a character directly addresses “you” the reader, as if the story is a letter. Like a letter, the effect is a feeling of intimacy, of being talked to directly by the narrator. The limitation, however, is that you only see and hear what that narrator reveals.
Third Person – He or She: The third person point of view involves a narrator outside the story who reveals either the thoughts of a single character (3rd person limited) or the thoughts of more than one character (3rd person omniscient). With third person, the voice of the narrator becomes a vital element of revealing a story’s setting and the thoughts of its characters.
Read the Aesop Fable below called “The Cat and the Fox”; then, rewrite it from three different points of view:
1: First Person – The Cat as narrator.
2: Second Person – The Cat speaking to the Fox’s family
3: Third Person Omniscient – A narrator that reveals both the thoughts of the Cat and the Fox.
The Cat and the Fox
A Fox was boasting to a Cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.”
“I have only one,” said the Cat; “but I can generally manage with that.” Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs. “This is my plan,” said the Cat. “What are you going to do?” The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. Miss Puss, who had been looking on, said:
“Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: When you pick up a book, everyone knows it’s imaginary. You don’t have to pretend it’s not a book. We don’t have to pretend that people don’t write books. That omniscient third-person narration isn’t the only way to do it. Once you’re writing in the first person, then the narrator is a writer. -Paul Auster
1- Dickson, Paul. Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014: 166-7.