or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

They Say

Sometimes I think Finnish got it right; gender doesn't enter the picture at all. I don't mean grammatical gender, which has nothing to do with actual gender, although Finnish doesn't have that, either; I mean gender gender. There is a third-person pronoun corresponding to English "it" (it's "se"), and another ("hän") which means either "she" or "he", depending on context. My Finnish co-worker speaks terrific English, but it's something she still gets wrong most of the time, referring to her husband as "she".

I bring this up because of the hoo-ha at Facebook about gendered pronouns. You now have to specify your gender, after which Facebook will refer to your various actions with the correct reflexive pronoun; "Jane Doe has tagged herself in your photo." What did the used to say? "Themself". And oh so many people were up in arms about it!

Here is most of a snippy Associated Press piece about the imbroglio:

The online hangout Facebook is getting more serious about grammar. No more should users see jarringly incorrect declarations such as "Debbie changed their profile picture."

Users who haven't specified gender in their Facebook profiles will be asked to do so soon. That way, Facebook won't have to default to "their" or the made-up word "themself," as it had been doing.

While not knowing someone's gender poses grammatical challenges in English, it has created even larger headaches as Facebook expands to other languages, where a gender-neutral option isn't available in plural form.

I never registered any of this before because I don't give a possum's bum about Facebook. It seems a lot of people have been grousing about it, though; Google "facebook grammar" and you'll find an awful lot of links such as this one:

As a new convert to Facebook, I've notices that its news and updates feature lack grammatical correctness.

For example, you might read that "John Smith has a picture to their profile."  (Emphasis mine).

That's because Facebook doesn't take into account one's gender.

But that's going to change.

As for what I think? For starters, "they" as a singular nominative pronoun (and the parallel "their" for the genitive pronoun) are inelegant, but they've been used for a very long time and are well established in the language. You don't have to use them, and never would in the most formal writing, but there's no point in pretending that they don't exist in this role; when you want a gender-free third-person pronoun, you can't use "it" when referring to a person, and so "they" has come to fill the need. Even if you don't like this usage, it's pointless to say it's wrong. It was once upon a time, but it isn't now. Thackeray used it in "Vanity Fair" a hundred and sixty years ago, so you get to use it now.

As for "themself", I think it's even more inelegant than singular "they" and "their", but I also think it's an inevitable outgrowth of them. If you're going to permit the plural pronouns to do double duty as singular ones, you can hardly carp when people naturally turn them into reflexive pronouns as well.

And it's not as if this is new, either. Calling "themself" a "made-up word" is a little short-sighted, because first, all words are made up at one point or another, and second, the word is very very old; William Caxton used it back in the fifteenth century (rendered in modern English, "Each of them should make themself ready").

I'd avoid "themself" wherever possible, and I'd encourage any author to write around it, but I wouldn't call it flat-out wrong. Ugly, yes, a little, but not wrong. Any word that's been around for over five hundred years has surely earned itself its little foothold in the language.


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