Facebook logoSince Facebook already knows whether you are male or female, and even distinguishes between your “Cousin (male)” and “Cousin (female),” a distinction the English language doesn’t make, then why can’t you have “his” or “her” in your profile updates? He “changed their profile.” “It’s their birthday.” Even if you’re a twin or so, how many of you are taking action on your singular account? So Facebook has recently revised its most awkward profile update! “It’s their birthday” is now “It’s [insert name]’s birthday.” I am delighted. That’s another way to handle this tricky pronoun matching.

Many editors have given in to the colloquial mismatch of certain singular subjects with plural pronouns, as in “Everyone should master their native language.” But when the subject is a known person, and the platform has already classified you by gender, why be lazy?

This construction is primarily a singular-plural issue, but it’s also a gendered language issue. I am woman; call me She.

Two decades ago, I resisted some of the gender-sensitive revisions as silly. Chairman became chair, which was perfect. But when a university vice-president stopped the presses on the student handbook I had written so she could change ombudsman to ombudsperson, I argued against it. It was an ugly solution, and it didn’t match the sign on the door or the listing in the directory. Who knew how many faculty senate meetings it would take to change it? And what was next? Hu-person? I lost.

A few years later, I heard Alleen Pace Nilsen present some of her gender-based language research. She studied preschoolers and learned that no three-year-old believed a mailman could be a woman. Man was not innately generic.

I still dragged my editorial pencil. I had distinguished between the pronounced schwa of ombudsman as generic, and the short a in mailman as specific, so I gave that up. Yet I still resisted excluding myself from the historic generic, as in “All men are created equal” (though women weren’t voting at that time) and “One small step for man–one giant leap for mankind.” Count me in!

Because I am old enough to remember stewardess, waitress, and mailman, I still feel delight whenever I hear or speak of a flight attendant, server, or mail carrier. Notice that none of these include that awkward suffix, person. There are usually more elegant solutions.

We’d all cringe if you called me authoress or poetess. They sound pejorative and we’d know you’re at least ninety. And yet, I also cringe when a woman who performs on stage or film prefers actor. Can you imagine the Academy Awards becoming so generic, there’s only one Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor award? (Want to guess who would usually win?) Acting is one career where gender still matters—in a good way. Anytime someone is cross-cast, you can bet it’s a major plot point. That’s because acting imitates life, and gender is, well, a fact of life.

By the way, in Spanish, gender is far more frequently classified, so Facebook confuses many more terms in that language. I’m sure they’ll get it right soon. We know Facebook’s coders are smart enough to add a few corrective lines.

Thank you for polishing the details in your prose. One small step for pronouns—one giant leap for humanity.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Image: Facebook’s logo

Meet linguists Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen (Don was my thesis chair.)