June Casagrande, “A Word, Please: As Literate as Shakespeare” (Burbank Leader, Oct. 14, 2011)
Recently, a Minnesota Public Radio talk show listener called to suggest to language experts Ben Zimmer and Grant Barrett a clever solution to a very perplexing and pervasive language problem.
The problem crops up when we need to talk about a hypothetical or unknown person whose sex we don’t know. …
In fact, Zimmer noted, there have been hundreds of attempts since the mid-19th century, some quite well publicized, to inject a new pronoun into the language. Thon, hu, hes, nie, en, lie, himer, hse, ve and hiser are just a few.
“Not a single one has caught on,” Zimmer said.
Language doesn’t work that way. Words, idioms and grammar conventions evolve organically, and that’s how a singular neuter English pronoun is evolving today. It’s “they,” and its partner forms “their” and “them.”
“The only thing that’s had any success is using the plural pronoun ‘they’ as a singular pronoun,” Zimmer said. “That is the most common and most acceptable way, even though it might rankle some people.”
Read the rest here.