At the top of the list of people annoying me today is Prof. Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan, who has taken to the virtual airwaves to vandalize the English language on an episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast at Slate, specifically by encouraging the use of they as a substitute for he in situations in which the sex of the party being referred to is not explicit. Students who have endured my writing course will recognize that as a 30-point number-agreement error, the source of much grade anxiety on their part and angry marginalia on mine.
Example: “When a person does not know to which sex they are referring, they should write ‘they’ instead of ‘he.’” This is ungrammatical (and ugly) because the singular noun “a person” does not fit with the plural pronoun “they.” Fortunately, the English language provides us with a perfectly good pronoun to use in such instances, and that pronoun is he.
He no more constricts the sex possibilities of a sentence than the masculine gender of fungus in Latin implies that all mushrooms are boy mushrooms. The form of words is not necessarily connected to the meaning of words, and that is true when it comes to grammatical gender and biological sex. Students of Latin will of course be familiar with this fact, inasmuch as there are a number of grammatically masculine words that have feminine-looking spellings: No Roman thought that the typical horseback-mounted archer (hippotoxota) or banker (danista) gladiator-school operator (lanista) or sailor (nauta) was a woman, in spite of the superficially feminine construction of the words. Presumably, everybody understood that the Roman general who conquered Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, was a man, in spite of the fact that his cognomen (meaning “farmer”) ended in –a (associated in Latin with feminine nouns) rather than in –us (associated in Latin with masculine nouns). Spelling, as it turns out, is not destiny.
It is not difficult to identify a similar dynamic in English. There is no confusion about the sex of Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi, even though she is identified as “chief executive officer and chairman of the board.” (Imagine writing that: “There is no confusion about the sex of Pepsico’s top executive, even though they is identified as ‘chief executive officer and chairman of the board.’”) When the NAACP named Mary White Ovington its “chairman” in 1919, her sex was not in doubt.
Of course there are associations that go along with particular words. Nurse is a word that we think of as feminine, because once upon a time the great majority of nurses were women. Would we have thought of the word as less feminine if we had known that it is derived from from the masculine Latin word for “foster father” (nutricius), which itself is derived from a feminine noun (nutrix) derived from a verb (nutrire)? Does Chuck Norris (whose surname comes from the related French word norrice) have a sex-identification problem because his family name is derived from a word meaning “to suckle babies”? I doubt it.
If there remain people careering around the English-speaking world believing that a woman cannot be a committee chairman or that a man cannot be a nurse, the problem is not spelling – the problem is imbecility. Making English a bit less structurally elegant would not solve that problem. As I learned in college, the worst thing about feminists is listening to them talk.