Caveat: I do not claim to be an expert grammarian. Nor am I an expert Rastafarian.
I am, however, the owner of more language reference books than should be legal in the suburbs. I use them each month in a “Grammar Smarts” column in the newsletter I create for the NJ Writer’s Society where I tackle common grammar and usage mistakes. But this week, my books failed me.
A Society member emailed to ask if I could clarify the he/she/it issue. Her exact quote is: “Reading several articles in Writer’s Digest, I noticed some pronoun gender bending. Instead of the awkward coupling he/she when referring to a general audience, authors avoid the conventional use of the masculine pronoun (he) and defer to the feminine pronoun (she). Which is currently in fashion?”
I love that she asked what the current fashion is — not what is currently correct. Unfortunately, no one with the power to create rules for the rest of us to use will address the issue definitively. At least no one that I could find.
The inclusion of “she” came with the era of Political Correctness and is yet another issue the era brought to attention and neglected to actually do anything about. Not that I’m against PC completely. It does have it’s place. I just sometimes think it’s hard to say for sure where that place is.
I am old enough to remember when “he” was the pervasive pronoun and was insulted by it. (In fact, in desperation to get some kind of a paper done in time for a Modernist Poetry class, I even applied Feminist theory to Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming” to suggest that he would support everyone using “she” instead of “he.”) But I think I’ve relaxed a little since them.
It’s just too cumbersome to try and include everyone using the words he and she. It reads awkward doing the slash thing — “When the patient has his/her physical complete, he/she needs to have his/her physician provide commentary on whether or not he/she is able to fulfill his/her work duties.” And doing the alternating thing — i.e., using she for one part then he for the next and so on, is beyond tedious. I recently completed a 65,000-word work on cat nutrition and my publisher insisted on alternating between he and she with each section. Seemed easy enough, until the work was almost complete and new sections needed to be added in and old sections moved. It took more time going back and changing the sexes than it did to write the freaking book. And it was annoying as hell.
So what is a writer to do?
It will not do — there are too many negatives associated with it. We refer to unknown creatures as It and we call the kid in the mommy-and-me class who is unattractive, full of mucous, and overly aggressive, the It-child.
One will not do. Sounds too British and formal for us Americans. One works well for us only when we want to be goofy or sarcastic.
We need a word that has no negative undertones and that sounds relaxed and comfortable. Sounds like we need a word Bob Marley would use. Yes! That’s it! Perhaps we could take a cue from the Rastafarians.
See, Rastafarians created a language without using negative terms. They did it in order to confront and reject Colonialism. (Yes, they created a way to use positive words to rebel.) I won’t get into all the political stuff here — frankly, I don’t think I understand all the political stuff — but I will dabble in their language. Here’s the deal . . .
Rastafarians replaced the word “me” with “I,” because the word me tends to make the person sound like an object, not a human, whereas I celebrates the individual. “I and I” is used to replace “we” because, in their religion, we are all one united with Jah. Actually “I” before a word is often used in a similar vein (e.g., Ireator means creator), and Idren is used for peers (like brethren or sisteren). Which might be what we need.
Idren — pronounced with a long I.
Let’s revisit that sentence earlier with Idren: When the patient has Idren’s physical complete, Idren will need to have Idren’s physician provide commentary on whether or not Idren is able to fulfill Idren’s work duties.
Hmmm . . . might be a possibility.