Skip to content


Thursday, 19 July 2007

Back in February, the Los Angeles Times ran the following essay on the misuse of the epicene pronoun by University of Delaware journalism professor, Ben Yagoda.

 The inevitable epicene solution

What does a tipping point sound like? Possibly, what I heard recently when a leaf of paper fluttered out of a credit card mailing. It offered rewards points for ordering additional cards for family members and had the heading: “No one has to know you added them for the rewards.” The copywriter’s use of the word “them” — instead of the more traditional “him” or the more recently favored “him or her” — was the semantic straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a signal that the genderless pronoun had arrived.

“Returned” might be a better way to put it. Before the mid-18th century, English writers and speakers universally referred back to an indefinite antecedent (“everyone,” “anyone,” “a person”) with the pronouns “they,” “their” or “them.” This was understandable because all singular personal pronous are gender specific. And so, Shakespeare: “God send everyone their heart’s desire.” The King James Bible: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.” Henry Fielding: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?”

From the late 1700s through the early 1900s, much grammatical rule making took place in England and the United States, and the rule makers were offended by the use of otherwise plural pronouns to stand in for singular nouns. Their collective wisdom determined that the appropriate pronoun in all such cases should be masculine generic — that is, “he,” “him,” and “his.” The usage is grammatically unimpeachable but, in excluding females, is not only politically but factually incorrect, leading to the publiciation of sentences such as, “Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young.”

Even 150 years ago, the usage bothered many people. Linguistic innovators proposed alternatives; 29 have been cataloged by scholar Dennis Barron, including “thon,” “le,” “ip,” “zi,” and “hiser.” Obviously none caught on. Change only happened in the 1970s, when feminism made the masculine generic more or less untenable. The innocuous and awkward “he or she” became the accepted choice, supplemented by such slasher pronouns as “s/he” and “him/her.”

But all the while the singular “they” — linguists’ technical term for it is epicene pronoun — led a kind of shadow existence. It was popular if not prevalent in speech, where in addition to its other virtues it can convey gender indeterminancy: “I was talking to someone in a bar and they gave me their phone number.” And it was frequently used in print by notable stylists. Oscar Wilde, for instance: “Experience is the name everybody gives to their mistakes.”

A milestone on the road to official acceptance arrived in the 13th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, published in 1993, which recommended “the revival of the singular use of they and their.” Some authorities continue to push this line hard. Merriam-Webster says use of the epicene pronoun is “well established.” The more conservative American Heritage Dictionary‘s Usage Panel sniffs at that notion. Presented with the sentence, “The typical student takes about six years to complete their coursework,” 82% of the members deemed the “their” unacceptable.

But they have bet on the wrong horse. Anecdotally, I find a new example just about every day, such as an Associated Press article referring to “a law that prohibits commerical use of someone’s name or likeness without their consent.” The Google Scholar tool, which searches respectably published books and articles, reveals that since the beginning of 2006, “everyone has his” and “everyone has his or her” were used a combined 53 times. “Everyone has their”? Fifty-nine.

At this point, “they” sounds so right that people think they’re reading it even when they’re not. Some weeks ago, I came upon a New York Times article that quoted a line from the 1949 essay “Here is New York” by E.B. White — co-author, with William Strunk, of “The Elements of Style.” The quote read: “No one should come to New York to live unless they are willing to be lucky.” That didn’t sound like 1949 lanuguage to me, so I looked up the original and found this sentence: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” And no one should quote E.B. White unless they do it carefully.

Many of you are aware that Frume Sarah takes more than a passing interest in all things grammar and it is true that this piece was initally sent in my direction for that reason (thanks DadGiraffe!).  However, for those of us struggling with gender-specific liturgical language, the essay raises some interesting points.

 Can the masculine generic pronoun be used in prayer without disenfranchising half of the population?  Can God-language ever truly be gender-blind?

The Reform movement has been debating and wrestling with this very notion for several decades.  This struggle produced the 1975 publication of Gates of Prayer — the official prayerbook of Reform Judaism.  Gates of Prayer attempted to ——– by removing much of the gender-specific language that had been used in prior prayerbooks.  The culmination of this ongoing machlochet (difference of opinion) will be the imminent appearance of Mishkan T’filah (“Tent of Prayer”) — A New Refom Siddur.  According to the CCAR PressMishkah T’filah reflects the full diversity of our Movement … includes … Contemporary, gender-inclusive English.

Trouble ahead!!

First of all, while all gender references have been removed from the English, they remain in the Hebrew, our lashon haKodesh (Holy language).  Hebrew, like so many other languages, is gender-specific and cannot be neutered in the same fashion as the English.  And yes, I recognize that the majority of liberal Jewry cannot understand the Hebrew.  However, I cannot advocate pulling the wool over the eyes of our congregations.  If the word Adonai means “my Lord,” and one objects to the masculine nature of the word in English, shouldn’t one also object to the use of the Hebrew word as well?

In Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman confronts the epicene pronoun in “The His’er Problem.” I resonate with her umbrage at the attempt made by the United Church of Christ’s new hymnal to be inclusive. Replacing “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” with “Dear God, Embracing Humankind” leaves me spiritually cold. In the same way that translating Avinu Malkeinu as “Our Parent, Our Sovereign” does. This sort of “gender-inclusive” language excludes me.

I cannot pray to an “it.” Judaism maintains a belief in an intangible deity. In other words, it is not that God is invisible for that implies that God has a body that we are unable to see. Rather, God is physically intangible. Therefore, God has no gender — or, since “God created man in His Image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them“, perhaps we might conclude that God has both genders. Rabbinic tradition certainly allows for both male and female characteristics of God to be explored. Both. And that means that some of us might always feel comfortable using the masculine pronoun when referring to Him. To God. Avinu. Adonai.

If the new prayerbook is meant to “reflect the full diversity of our Movement,” then it ought to allow for this.

And I worry that it won’t…

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Jockbro permalink
    Friday, 20 July 2007 6:39 am

    This entry was worth the wait. I agree with you wholeheartedly and, in fact, always edit my students’ papers, removing “them” when “him” or “her” or “him or her” seems more appropriate. I am similarly confounded by the impending Mishkan T’filah.

  2. Friday, 20 July 2007 2:05 pm

    Having seen an advance copy courtesy of Mr. EK, there are a bunch of things to worry about, IMHO. But I still think it is a step ahead, rather than another stumbling block the movement has placed in front of itself.

  3. Frume Sarah permalink
    Monday, 23 July 2007 8:27 pm

    I do hope that you are right!!

  4. Wednesday, 25 July 2007 2:38 pm

    Hey, listen, they put most of Sh’ma back together – who’d of thought that 30 years ago? 🙂

  5. Frume Sarah permalink
    Wednesday, 25 July 2007 2:47 pm

    So true!! But they’ve made some other strange choices…

    Is your shul switching over? We are…much to my consternation…

  6. Nikol permalink
    Wednesday, 24 October 2007 5:15 pm

    What do you think of this ?

  7. Frume Sarah permalink
    Monday, 29 October 2007 12:48 pm

    Hi Nikol —

    Planning an entry on this article.

  8. Polly Oliver permalink
    Tuesday, 4 November 2008 6:10 am

    Another solution: ‘she’ can be inclusive too. If you’re speaking of a hypothetical person, you can legitimately use the pronoun ‘she’ without guilt. It is both politically and grammatically correct to alternate between an inclusive ‘she’ and an inclusive ‘he.’ Also, if God is of neither, or of both, genders, then can you not sometimes pray to a God who you refer to as a ‘she,’ who you think of as an all-powerful ‘Mother of Mankind’?

    Though it is true that ‘father’ evokes different ideas than ‘mother,’ it may be misogynistic to deny that the image of God as a Mother is as compelling as the image of God as a Father. Is He not both? Isn’t She all that is idealized of a ‘mother’ too: nurturing, affirming, life-giving?

    This is just my personal aesthetic opinion, but I’ve always felt that ‘humanity’ sounded just as sweeping and profound as ‘mankind.’ ‘Humankind’ is a little more awkward, yes.


  1. How’s it Hanging? « Frume Sarah’s World

What's On Your Mind??

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: