You talking to me? Language nerd/ 21st century edition

Reading The New Yorkeris a weekly pleasure – not just the cartoons, though they are reliably wonderful. A few weeks ago, (12/17/18) I came across an article about artificial facial recognition, “Here’s Looking at You” by staff writer David Owens. It begins in an Irish cow barn where cameras record the actions of Bossy and Bessie in the service of increasing milk production. This technology may someday enable physicians to make diagnoses before symptoms become apparent; police departments are already using it and other government agencies and it has – as its inventors warn — potentially Orwellian applications.

As often happens with The New Yorker, I found myself fascinated by a subject I would never have sought out and I was all in on this one, until Owens, talking about humans’ ability to remember faces, wrote, “We … don’t believe our wives when they tell us that the actor who played the con artist in “American Hustle” is the same actor who played the F.B.I. agent in ”Public Enemies.”

Excuse me?

Our wives? Whose wives?  What decade is this? What century?

I don’t believe that Mr. Owens or the notoriously scrupulous copy editors of The New Yorkerassume that all of their readers are heterosexual married men. Which means they are holding fast to the 19thcentury grammatical rule that equates “male” with “human.”

I often wished I had a wife – haven’t you? A person who doesn’t just notice you’re running low on milk, but gets a new carton before the old one is empty. It’s a tired jokey trope about sex roles, but Mr. Owens wasn’t making that point in referring to “our wives.”

Which is weird. The grammar of gender has been a boiling pot for decades.  I grew up using masculine pronouns as the stand-in for all of humanity: ““Every parent wants his child to succeed. The second wave of feminism exposed the assumption, inaccuracy, and injustice of that sentence, so by the time I was in college, it was proper to say and write, “Everyone wants his or her child to succeed.” That gummed up the flow, but it was – at least — not incorrect.

You could even give precedence to the feminine; “Everyone wants her or his child to succeed.” No matter how much I agreed with the point of that arrangement, that felt like a glitch. Even so, I preferred it to the patently incorrect, “Everyone wants their child to succeed.” The singular “they” made my skin crawl and I did my best to avoid the problem altogether. It’s not hard: “All parents want their children to succeed.” And nobody gets hurt.

Recently, I realized I was being ridiculous.  Language change; always has, always will. And if The Washington Postcould revise its stylebook to include singular “they,” why not me? Especially once I learned that Chaucer used it, and Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

Jane Austen!

In fact, it wasn’t until the 19thcentury that the singular “they” was cast out in favor of a blanket masculine him/he/his.

The singular they/them/theirs now trips easily from my tongue and keyboard. No more “his or her, “no more “s/he.” It’s efficient and, as a bonus, it eases our collective way into an increasingly non-binary world, where gender is no longer Thing One or Thing Two, pink or blue; where plumbing is not destiny, and taunts of “Sissy” and “Butch” have been freed from the fists of bullies.

“We don’t believe our wives” feels like a gratuitous a poke in the eye. But it’s an outlier and, in fact, a reminder that some things do get better. It will just take a while until everyone gets their act together.



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