Monday, July 21, 2008


Anyone who writes anything must occasionally come across shortcomings in their language. Doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post, a dissertation, or a letter home. Sometimes English just doesn’t cut it. When I write poetry, I frequently find things I want to describe – with an economy of words – only a word doesn’t exist. Usually this has to do with weather, type of cloud or certain condition of the light. So, I started creating my own new words. That was really enjoyable; but things don’t always go so smoothly.

It isn’t always the more exotic words that are lacking. Who hasn’t noticed the increasing use of “their” as a singular non-gender-specific pronoun? I’ve read articles where guardians of the language really take this particular usage to task. I have to admit that there are cases where I might join them, and descry the deterioration of the language, but this isn’t one of them. I fully support the use of the singularized “their” when the gender of the person in question is not known. Example: Anyone who writes anything must occasionally come across shortcomings in their language. Just this morning, I posted a blog comment about a cute little red fox kit. Since I didn’t know the gender of the animal, I was forced to stop and review my choices.

Traditionally, English has defaulted to the male. Maybe not as vigorously as, say, Spanish, but it’s still the preferred gender for those “when in doubt” grammatical situations. Even so, it’s not like we don’t have other choices. There’s “her” or “its” and of course “his/her.” I have used “s/he” on occasion, but that hybrid is harder to pull off with “his” and “her.” Anyway, I went with “his/her” this morning. I don’t normally consider myself politically feminist, but I found, to my surprise, that I just couldn’t go with the default male. You might ask why I didn’t use “its” and be done with it. Well, that baby fox was just too cute for an “its.” That’s the problem with “its" in certain cases. “Its” is okay when talking about things we are emotionally neutral about, but not adorable youngsters. Especially furry ones with pointy little faces.

So, I think we all need to stand together on this, put in our requests and have English to get back to us. We need our living, growing, changing language to come up with some solution to these gender difficulties.

To see photos of the sweet little fox, and all comments, click on the link to Nature Tales and Camera Trails in the blog list, and go to the Young Fox post (July 21/08).


Poetikat said...

You were right about the adorable fox-kit. I have often been stymied but gender pronouns.
As a church-goer, I am dismayed that old hymns are being converted to accommodate neutrality when describing the flock - and even the Shepherd.


me ann my camera said...

I enjoyed your discussion and see your point; nicely thought provoking. I used to be guilty of gender default and of automatically deferring to 'he' when I really didn't know which he/she was. I have tried to correct that and hopefully do not relapse too often. I will often reword a sentence to avoid a situation if I can where it seems I should use a gender reference.

Thank you for your comments and link to my blog. I appreciate both.

Deborah Godin said...

I know just what you mean, Ann, about the reworking. And the most interesting thing I learned from writing that comment was about myself -- how much actual thought I gave to how my choice of pronouns might represent me "out there!