Driving down the road, listening to NPR, I heard a newscast that reminded me of the conundrum over which pronoun to use when the gender is unknown. It has become common to use they as a singular pronoun.
Yet this grates on the ears of those of us inured to the idea that they is plural, only plural, and nothing but plural, come hell or high water. That, in fact, is what it was until a few decades ago, when the feminist movement took offense at the use of he when the gender was unknown. People began wringing their hands over what to do, and he or she, or he and she, or he/she was adopted as the solution to the vexing verbal dilemma. That soon was regarded as cumbersome, and they segued into general acceptance.
NPR to the rescue
Much to my delight, the report on NPR inadvertently uncovered another conundrum. Which verb tense should follow the singular they? I didn’t have the opportunity to jot down the quote on NPR, and have forgotten it. But I will submit an equivalent situation:
“After the person was found guilty, they were jailed.” Is that awkward, or what? It’s a clear violation of the grammatical rule that subject and verb must agree in number: “The person were jailed” is nonsensical. Yet it wouldn’t sound any more appropriate to say, “After the person was found guilty, they was jailed.”
Having it both ways
Ironically, it was a woman who came up with the idea of using the masculine pronoun form when the gender was unknown. The problem has been
What to do? There seems to be only one way out of this that won’t offend. We need a neutral pronoun and its forms. Hmmm, let’s see … he, she … By George (or is it Georgina?), I think I’ve got it.
Hesh. Eureka, that’s it! Hesh is a combination of he and she. Hence, “After the person was found guilty, hesh was jailed.”
Now what to do about him or her? (Drumming on the table, staring into space.) Aha! Herm. The objective forms of he and she are him and her. Reverse the order, put them together, and we get herm.
Two down, one to go. His or hers? Looks like it’ll take two syllables to tango in this gender dance. Hisers, as in, “The money belonged to one of them. It was hisers.”
Just do it!
Okay, I came up with the idea. Anybody out there with the chutzpah to put it into effect?
Hey, don’t look at me.