“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

 

 

The reflections of mine which follow concern a point of grammar that bothers me. The usage which I object to occurred in the following article which I was reading on Monday.

 

“Casualties of the Cashless Society: Those Who Get Seasonal Tips”

by Douglas Quenqua

The New York Times

December 18, 2017

 

It is not a unique occurrence or example. The passage in the Times article was as follows:

“It’s a peculiar quirk of modern city life. The stock market is on fire, unemployment is down, and the average price of a Manhattan apartment is now more than $2 million. Yet good luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse.”

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Note “HER purse.”

I have a problem with this.

The reporter, if he wanted to be politically correct, could have used the awkward locution “his or her” (i.e., “his or her purse”), which I don’t particularly care for. (Nevertheless, I myself use it when I feel called upon by context to do so. But, I don’t feel obligated to use it. It depends upon my writerly instincts. In my opinion, that’s the way it should be. My or anyone else’s writing should be based upon personal preferences in matters of style, not a ukase from a language czar.)

But, the Times writer wants to show off his PC credentials with his in your face “her.” It is meant to produce a frisson in male chauvinist types. But, it actually amounts to “incivility,” so to speak, when it comes to conventions of language and audience expectations. By “audience expectations,” I mean those of  the Times’s readers. If you think this is an extreme point of view, see discussions of how a writer should always keep his or her audience uppermost in mind as a “first principle” of composition in books such as June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. The unexpected “she,” rather than “he,” or “he or she,” produces a sensation of disorientation — and temporary confusion — in the discriminating reader.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

“[G]ood luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse” annoys me. I quoted the passage to a friend of mine (a male) with an advanced degree who has very liberal views on politics, affirmative action, sexism, homophobia, and other issues and asked him what he thought. He agreed with me. He didn’t like the use of “her” in this instance and said it annoyed him too.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Re pronouns indicating gender, such as Ms.

I consider Ms. to be an abomination.

The abbreviation Mrs. signifies a beautiful honorific pronounced as Missus, and the honorific Miss, which is not abbreviated, has a beautiful sound (unlike the atrocious and downright ugly Ms., which is unpronounceable, but who cares? — we shall not have sexism in the workplace!). We are talking about ancient words embedded in our glorious language.

The French have the abbreviations M., spelled out and pronounced as the elegant Monsieur; and Mme and Mlle, pronounced and spelled out, respectively, as the euphonious Madame and the even more euphonious Mademoiselle. What a beautiful word.

What about the Spanish Srta. for the beautiful sounding honorific Señorita? Have the language police come up with an ugly substitute (one that does not indicate marital status) yet? I fear that they have.

I wonder if “Mademoiselle,” the 1970’s hit by the rock band Styx, will have to be retitled in the name of political correctness.

And what about the hit song “Adios Senorita” by Ivory Joe Hunter, which is still played? Title change? It’s never too late to correct the past sins of a benighted, politically incorrect lyricist.

More ominously, what about the musical Miss Saigon? Should the title be allowed to stand? Should it be changed to “Ms. Saigon”?

 

 

*****************************************************

 

This is not nitpicking on my part, and it is not a trivial matter. Ask New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris, author of the best seller Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. As she says, “Pronouns run deep.” The PC types are all for conservation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.

If a reader of this blog disagrees with me, she is welcome to post a comment.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 20, 2017

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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9 Responses to “her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

  1. Pete Smith says:

    While there are silly uses of PC language (such as he/she), I disagree in some respects with this post. The use of the word purse in the NY Times sentence is important here. It might have been different if the phrase were “finding some change in her pocket” (though I’m not sure), but the image conjured is one of a woman fishing in her purse to tip a doorman so the word “her” is unquestionably called for here. (I know that men sometimes use purses too but let’s not go there).

    As for Ms., Ms. Saigon would be stupid I agree. But the term Ms. originated when the women’s movement complained legitimately that for females the world was differentiating always between married and unmarried while the word Mr. applies to both married and unmarried males.

    I have no problem using the word Ms.; it’s respectful of what many women want. Further, what would you call my wife, Mrs. Marsh? She kept her last name when she married me, and she is no longer married to Mr. Marsh, so in her case she is not Mrs. Marsh and calling her Mrs. Smith would be an insult. But of course, you can call her Marcia. . .

    Overall, I like it when writers can word things so that the word “their” replaces “his” or “her” and I dislike it when writers go through contortions trying to be politically correct. I agree with you there. But if in an essay a writer uses his half the time and her the other half when referring to the generic personal possessive, it doesn’t bother me at all.

  2. You make some good points. You do have a point about a woman reaching for change in her purse vs. a man in his wallet. Nevertheless, I think the Times writer was “showing off,” hoping readers and probably his editors would admire his political correctness.

    June Casagrande says a writer should always keep the reader and the reader’s expectations in mind. What the Times writer is doing is trying to impress and discombobulate the reader for no good reason.

    Ms. is downright ugly.

    Mary Norris dislikes — in fact, strongly disapproves of — “their” as the generic pronoun for a person (singular) whose gender is unspecified. I agree. She points out that their is PLURAL. Why should the language police be allowed to fuck up the language to conform to their agenda? I love and respect the intricacy of languages’ grammatical structures. Ralph told me, if I remember correctly, that Icelandic has manifold forms of the definite article. (Russian has no articles.) This fascinated me. Should the language police be authorized to undertake a study of Icelandic definite and indefinite articles with a review to assessing whether they need “retooling” in the name of political correctness? Should the Academie Francaise consider making nouns like “la table” neuter so that no one might, just possibly, be offended?

    If a writer used “her” and “his” willy nilly in an essay — with no apparent reason or basis (an exception might be a book about Dick and Jane in which the writer swiches constantly between referring to one or the other) — that would be pointless and confusing.

  3. Luanne says:

    Very interesting piece, Roger. I had to look up the word “ukase,” by the way. As a woman, my first thought was “why is the writer zeroing in on women who carry purses to talk about tips?” Don’t men give tips? At least as often (more often in this marriage). And purses can be for men or women or that whole long list of new genders I saw the other day. So I found the focus to be very narrow. It wasn’t even politically correct, if you think about it from that perspective. I’d call it a poor writing choice. I think “wallet” would be more appropriate than “purse.” Maybe we should be relieved that it doesn’t read, “anyone with paper money in their purse.”

  4. Pete Smith says:

    Of course “their” is plural. You missed my point — you can rewrite the subjects to make them plural to make “their” work; I do this often.

    The Times isn’t perfect, but you clearly have a bias against them.

    Who are the language police? Your blog sounds like you’re one of them.

    I am not suggesting that the French change the structure of the language. I am suggesting that your bias is clouding your thinking. A purse is usually “hers,” not “his” and your reaction to a very normal sentence in the NY Times article is revealing.

  5. I belong to the language police? That’s a good one. To get an idea of what I have in mind, read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then read op-ed pieces and manifestos by zealous academics and language mavens on the subject. You might start with

    I’m surprised you don’t know what I’m talking about with respect to the misuse of “their.” An example would be: “An applicant should be mindful of their appearance when preparing for an interview.”

    I happen to admire quite a few New York Times writers and have occasionally commented on this in my posts. I think the Times is better written than practically all other newspapers. But, they do look foolish sometimes (in my opinion) when they try to be politically correct. And, it doesn’t help that they fired all their copy editors.

    Perhaps I did overreact to one phrase in the Times article. It set me off. But my thinking is not clouded. My points are valid and are clearly and forcefully presented. What’s happening is scary. People are trying to retool the language for ideological reasons. It’s not that far out to suggest that “la table,” Senorita, and God knows what other fact of grammar which we took for granted and enjoyed studying in school will perhaps be subject to the censor’s knife.

  6. Appreciate your feedback, Luanne. Thanks. We’re on the same page. Perhaps that’s because we’re both writers who care about language. (And love learning new words like “ukase.”) We’re an endangered species!

  7. Pete Smith says:

    Again you missed my point. The sentence, if I wrote it, would be “Applicants should be mindful of their appearance when preparing for an interview.”

  8. Yes, you can rewrite it this way. But, there are many examples of misusage where “their” is used for an antecedent which is singular. See the discussion on pp. 69-70 of the Mary Norris book which you gave me.

  9. Luanne says:

    We are an endangered species! By the way, I am looking forward to using “ukase” on my family history blog (about my husband’s Jewish Ukrainian ancestors). I suspect that there are many “ukases” in their past!

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