Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Someone evidently felt the hot breath of the J4400 workbook on (his or her) (their) neck and ended up writing the opposite of what (he or she) (they) meant:

Bill Bondeson, a philosophy professor at MU who has taught medical ethics courses, said a pharmacist should provide customers with any medication he or she wants or needs, within the realm of the law.

What Bondeson meant, one gathers, is that the pharmacist is supposed to give customers what they want or need, not what the pharmacist -- he or she -- thinks is morally appropriate. Grammar's kind of relentless about that. "He or she" has a pretty clear antecedent, and it ain't "customers."

This sort of thing gives inclusive language a bad name. Be alert for it.


Anonymous Denise Covert said...

Just curious, what IS your take on inclusive language? I'm so tired of saying "one" or constantly throwing in the "he or she" -- I think the usage has evolved to where "they" might be appropriate. . . *runs and hides from the Language Lynchers*

11:42 AM, October 19, 2006  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I can't speak for headsup, of course, but they has always been appropriate, except for the short span of time where people got hysterical about it. English isn't Latin; notional agreement works very well, and has for centuries (five at least). If the usage is recapturing our good, old reliable non-specific "they", hooray, but it's not "new".

To quote Geoff Pullum (full context here
"By all means, avoid using they with singular antecedents in your own writing and speaking if you feel you cannot bear it. Language Log is not here to tell you how to write or speak. But don't try to tell us that it's grammatically incorrect. Because when a construction is clearly present several times in Shakespeare's rightly admired plays and poems, and occurs in the carefully prepared published work of just about all major writers down the centuries, and is systematically present in the unreflecting conversational usage of just about everyone including Sean Lennon, then the claim that it is ungrammatical begins to look utterly unsustainable to us here at Language Log Plaza. This use of theyisn't ungrammatical, it isn't a mistake, it's a feature of ordinary English syntax that for some reason attracts the ire of particularly puristic pusillanimous pontificators, and we don't buy what they're selling."

8:32 AM, October 20, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

First things first: As a general matter, I prefer language that's both courteous and clear, and I tend to read that as defaulting toward the inclusive. A couple of concerns are worth noting.

One, it doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be, clumsy. Writing is a craft, and sometimes you have to practice it a little harder to make something like gender neutrality go smoothly. And some things take a bit of getting used to. Remember the obits for Gerry Studds at the weekend -- "survived by his husband"?

Two, the language bullies tend to get loose in inclusivity sometimes. Some people use that nyah-nyah-we-know-the-REAL-meaning-and-you-don't thing as an ideological billy club, and that ain't good.

Third, language does change. People who presume their preferences (say, a particular transliteration from a non-Latin alphabet, like "Koran") reflect the original pure start-time state of English, after which everything else is debased and wears its baseball cap backwards, tend to be blowing smoke.

To paraphrase Deborah Cameron, sort of: If it's really no big deal, just humor us, and if it _is_ a big deal, then ....

Now the "they" thing (and welcome to FCD, by the way). As a proud owner of one of the first TEAM IS AN IT T-shirts, I acknowledge Geoff's point (even though he still owes me six cents, AHEM). But it's a highly valued distinction in the register we practice hereabouts, so we're going to keep teaching it.

Now, if Shakespeare is hiding a bunch of "he or she" references with singular antecedents ("Treat all men to his or her deserts ..."), we got us a story on our hands.

11:06 PM, October 20, 2006  

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