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Them and us

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The other day I was attempting to assemble an item I had bought using translated directions that failed to discriminate between plural and singular nouns. The result was a lot of frustration, winging it, and do-overs. This got me to thinking about the consequences of mis-applying plural pronouns when referring to individuals instead of just using existing forms or creating a new singular pronoun.

Every woman who ever attended school already knows that we have needed inclusive singular pronouns for more than a hundred years now, but the guardians of our language never did anything about it except to decide that in order to preserve proper grammar, they would treat the male pronouns "he" and "him" as the default. Thus, every textbook inherently denigrated all women by simply excluding them from the mix. Laws were written in the masculine when all people were being referred to. Texts always used the masculine when giving instructions or hypothetical examples.

We need official recognition and use of pronouns that do not exclude individuals the writer intended to include, and do not create new problems by excluding those people from the concepts of "we," "our," and "us." I, and many females, tried to offset this by using the awkward "he or she" or "him or her" and later shortened that to "s/he" and "s/him" to accommodate multiple genders in a group.

Once you are referring to a single person as "they" by definition, "they" cannot be a part of "we," just as "them" cannot be a part of "us." Thus, the well-meaning but grammatically more awkward use of the plural to mean the singular has created a new perception that is at least as serious as the exclusion of females from professional writing. This is not supportable either socially or linguistically. We are marginalizing people through this practice, and it must stop.

Personally, I would suggest something along the line of "s/he" and "s/him" solutions, which have been used by some in the past and did not lead to confusion. We create new words every year, so it is possible to do so, and thus resolve both the grammatical and social issues of the ham-handed misuse of existing words that will create a new great divide between those spoken of as "them" and those the world will continue to refer to as "us."

Carol J. Nelson-Selby

San Luis Obispo


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