The inexorable descent of civilization to refined barbarity has, among other insults, destroyed the formerly innocuous third person singular pronoun – he/she and all its relatives. It is now impossible to use this construction without making a political statement. I refer to its use when its referent noun is of unspecified gender. Back in the middle of the last century Mrs Ellery taught me to use the masculine form of the pronoun under this circumstance. For example: Make sure your puppy gets his shots. He will be healthier if you do so. This usage would be fine if your puppy is a male. But if the advice appears in a magazine it applies to puppies of either gender. And while this might be fine for the unenlightened post World War II generation, it sends an electric current down the spine of progressive Americans.
Let’s consider Nate Silver the statistician and prognosticator who has achieved renown for his accurate predictions of recent US elections. In his book The Signal and the Noise (well worth reading) he is uniformly replaced by she. Anything of unspecified gender is feminine. This reflects the heightened awareness towards gender stereotypes that sensitive progressives flaunt. Mr Silver is a self described progressive. Why the constant use of she versus he is an improvement rather than a jarring nudge in the intercostal muscles is never explained by those who adopt the usage. Mr Silver is so gender challenged that the following sentence appears in his book: “If a player is not energized, I don’t know what we can do with them.” He writing about professional baseball players so a him could have been safely used, but though obvious the choice was apparently too painful to be exercised. Surely he recognizes that almost any major leagues baseball player is a man and that he could safely refer to her appropriately. While the use of a singular noun with a plural pronoun is common, why not just retreat to the safety of plural nouns which have non-gender specific pronouns. Probably because it’s cowardly. Amazingly, all this gender futzing around does not seem to have harmed Mr Silver’s analytical skills which are keen.
The opposite behavior is exhibited by the renowned playwright David Mamet. Mr Mamet is a man of the right, though he’s only recently arrived there. In his 2011 book The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of the American Culture (also worth reading) it’s he relentlessly and without pause. Far from seeming recherche, his insistence on the masculine pronoun tells you in a word where he stands. Though his hoary prose marks him as an imperious reactionary, it is easier to read – as if that had anything to do with good writing.
Now that I’ve defined the boundaries – what’s in between? Well, there are the leaners like those who write for Dog Fancy. The editors and writers of this magazine are sort of with Mr Silver, but they can’t go all the way. Accordingly, it’s she most of the time – but occasionally a dog is called he. I can’t think of a publication that’s mostly he, but once and a while goes she. The issue of gender and pronouns so confounded Bird Talk (published by the same outfit that does Dog Fancy) that they went out of business. Many birds are not sexually dimorphic; thus gender uncertainty fell upon the editors of Bird Talk like a Jovian thunderbolt and they were seized by a paralyzing pronoun overload such that words failed them.
Then there are the bean counters who count every pronoun and make sure that they are gender divided precisely 50 -50. You can’t read their prose without the aid of a calculator so her division can be verified.
There are the lawyers – at least in spirit if spirit and lawyer can be found in the same sentence. They’re the ones who drive you crazy with an endless succession of he or she. The rules of quantum entanglement seem grafted to language. He and she are linked until the end of time. So if you wish to discuss an NBA coach you have to say something like this: An NBA coach never really has job security. He or she must expect to be relived seemingly without warning. This is also the language of the bureaucrat who expects to be employed forever regardless of who wins an election. He or she is never disappointed.
Is there a solution to this grammatical bouillabaisse? Probably not. But here’s a simple solution. When confronted by the third person singular use he if you’re a boy and she if you’re a girl. But I suspect this would cause anxiety on the left and anger on the right. And besides it’s nice to be able to tell where anyone stands from just one word.