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.
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.