I recently got a letter from a reader who was outraged by what he saw as an assault on good grammar — specifically, the widespread use of "their" instead of "his" in this sort of construction: "Nobody can taste their own tongue."
Not long ago, I would have agreed with the letter writer — grammatically, I lean toward harrumphy rule-book tyranny, and "nobody" is, indeed, singular. But in this case, I wrote back that after some thought, I have come to accept "their" as a reasonable compromise for an intractable problem. "His or her" is clumsy, and just "his" is sexist. There is no reason the male pronoun should dominate. That, I concluded, was a relic of a more chauvinistic era, when, for example, language insisted on designating women (but not men) by their marital status, or even more egregiously, when terms like "Negress" or "Jewess" were in common use.
The reader wrote back to say that I had actually changed his mind. This does not happen to journalists very often, and it felt good. Moreover, it felt like a challenge! If I could make that small concession to delicacy over dogma, perhaps I could open my mind to even greater linguistic sensitivities, extend my public approval, and in a small way help soften our national lexicon. It was at that moment that someone leaked me a document that would test my new resolve.
Below are verbatim excerpts from a letter from an animal-rights activist to the scheduled speakers at an upcoming convention in Washington. He is urging language sensitivity. I have annotated it.
1 "Because animals are living, feeling, sentient individuals, rather than objects, please refer to them as 'he,' 'she' or 'who,' rather than 'it' or 'which.' "
Agreed! So far, so good!
2 "Because we don't want to join the meat industry in denying animals personhood, please refrain from referring to animals raised for food as 'livestock,' 'cattle,' 'hogs,' 'broilers,' 'layers' and so on, and from referring to animal flesh as 'beef,' 'pork,' 'poultry,' 'veal' and so on."
Still with you, sorta. Personhood is a good thing. But does "and so on" extend to, like, worms? Are worms people? NOT THAT I AM SAYING THEY AREN'T. Just exploring boundaries. We're mostly still cooking with gas here! (Veggies only.)
3 "Because animals are not our property, please use the term 'guardian' rather than 'owner,' 'animal companions' rather than 'pets,' 'animals in laboratories' rather than 'laboratory animals,' 'animals used for food' rather than 'food animals,' and so on."
Okay, look. I'm not sure what's so bad about "pets." I don't think the term implies mistreatment or even subservient status. My pet, Murphy the dog, pretty much runs my life. But more important, I'm not sure I like the alternative designation. Doesn't "companion" suggest Murphy has some sort of choice as to whether to stick around or not? Because I don't think she should have that choice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if Murphy realized she was free to go, she would go, inasmuch as she knows the way to the guy who sells bacon. Her trip would last 33 feet, which is the distance from my front door to the high-speed vehicle under which she would explode, inasmuch as Murphy has never figured out that moving cars are real things, as opposed to holograms that you can pass through without penalty.
4 "Please refrain from using derogatory terms like 'animal,' 'beast,' 'pig,' 'rat' or 'snake' to indicate a person who is violent, uncouth, messy, disloyal or devious, and consider replacing the everyday expressions such as 'killing two birds with one stone' with 'feeding two birds with one scone.' "
I don't want to be picky, I REALLY DON'T, but technically, are scones even GOOD for birds? Might it not be possible to inadvertently kill two birds with one scone?
That's where I stopped reading. Nobody wants to see their own head explode.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingartenwashpost.com. Follow him on Twitter @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesday at noon Eastern at washingtonpost.com.
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