Friday, June 18, 2010

Language and the Presidency 2

Here's the thing: when I started teaching, I told students that I was going to use only male pronouns for presidents.  For everyone else, voters, reporters, politicians at other levels, I either use "he or she" formulations or I alternate genders.  I do the same here.  But I always, frankly, felt silly referring to an abstract president as "his or her."  However, I told students that I'd switch at the point that a woman put in a serious run for a major party nomination.  And, at first, I carried through with that beginning in mid-2007, if I recall correctly.

Regular readers will note that I haven't done that here, however.  I'm not sure exactly why.  Obviously, we have now had a woman come very, very close to the presidency.  Just as obviously, she's not going to be the last one; in fact, as I said earlier today, it's by no means implausible that a woman will be elected president in 2012 (very unlikely in my opinion to be sure, but not implausible).  So I sort of think that I'm doing it wrong.  On the other hand, I'm not comfortable with referring to actual historical presidents as "he or she."  But abstract presidents...I'm not sure, but I think I'm wrong, and I should switch.  Readers: any thoughts?


  1. I think you should switch when discussing the future and hypotheticals. Abstractions when given in the context of past events are a little trickier. My basic rationale is that even if it's unlikely, it is, as you say, plausible, and I think it's important that that be recognized on the small--dare I say subliminal?--levels as well as on the major ones. If all it does is give students pause and make them wonder why you put it that way, then you've had a good moment as a teacher, in my book.

  2. Personally, being a bit of a traditionalist regarding language, I wouldn't bother adding the "or she/her" at all. I understand the reasons for it, but I still think the affectation of gender neutrality is odd. Although I do confess to personal usage of "one" or "they" from time to time.

  3. Though this is hardly an original insight, and I suspect you're aware of it already, you often can avoid the problem by turning a singular into a plural: instead of saying "A president must make his own decisions," you say "Presidents must make their own decisions." This trick doesn't always work, but it often is a way of producing a natural-sounding sentence that offends no one.

  4. Indeed, fifty years from now "they" and "their" will be accepted as proper pronouns for both plural and singular use. Unfortunately this may be accompanied by the formal acceptance of the word "thru."


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