Around the time the Great Flood started to recede I was taught to write, “Everyone must remove his shoes.” Funny how boys aren’t bothered by such preferential usage of male gender pronouns.
Back then feminism was a feature of the French Revolution and the current usage of politically correct had yet to surface. Mostly the phrase designated leftist ideological orthodoxy: “It is not politically correct to question Castro’s crackdown on free speech.”
I was well along in my newspaper career when feminists began to point out that our pronoun canon excluded about half of humanity. Almost overnight it became “Everyone must remove his or her shoes.” I did not comply — not for misogynistic reasons, but as a matter of style. There is nothing elegant in his or her and she or he. I could always find an escape hatch, such as “Guests must remove their shoes.” Paramount for me was number harmony along with style.
As 2016 began, the American Dialect Society declared the singular they Word of the Year. So, officially, it now can be “Everyone must remove their shoes.”
But if you’re thinking that this is political correctness negotiating a style obstacle, you’re wrong; it’s simply a politically correct recognition of the latest thinking on sexual identity — or, as Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh observed, singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
While sensitivity to sexual identity in some instances may be appropriate, it need not encompass everyone; some of us are not reluctant to be categorized. And demolishing the grammatical edifice of number harmony to achieve this seems a bridge too far. As Sam Goldwyn would say, include me out — because, along with reading and ’riting I was also taught ’rithmetic and two plus two will never be five, political correctness notwithstanding.
I am buoyed by the reaction of Mary Norris, the Comma Queen at the New Yorker. In her March 4 (U.S. National Grammar Day) column she refers to last year’s flirtation by the American Copy Editors Society with the singular their: “Many ACES stalwarts — copy editors, journalists, grammarians, lexicographers, and linguists — stand ready to embrace the singular ‘their.’ But not us. We avoid it whenever we can.”
Previous “Wasted Words” post: The Origins of Texting.
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