Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, driving home today, I saw a billboard for Mel Gibson’s new “Epic Snuff Film”, Apocalypto. The movie is apparently shot in Mayan (which is cool), and might even warrant me fast forwarding through it. However, what caught my eye was the tagline on the billboard:

No one can outrun their destiny

When I first read this, I felt a disturbance in the force as if thousands of English professors suddenly cried out in horror, and then were silenced.

“Their”, as used in the English of the past, is a plural possessive pronoun. Generally, it was used in sentences like “John and Clarissa stopped by to grab their pie dish” or “The girls all grabbed for their wallets”. This contrasts with the Singular possessive pronouns, “his” and “her” (“John saw his briefcase” and “Kathy hugged her penguin”).

“No one” is, in fact, a grammatically singular subject, which can be counterintuitive at first, because it refers to, well, everybody. We can check this with a simple sentence like “No one sees the purple frog”. Here, we use “sees”, the singular form, rather than “*No one see the purple frog” (Note that an *asterisk before a word or sentence generally means that a sentence isn’t grammatically correct).

So, given that the subject of the sentence (“No one”) is singular, then technically, the possessive used should be singular as well. The tagline, as given, is grammatically incorrect, and if you ask an English major, should be changed to “No one can outrun his or her destiny”. (Read where Language Log discusses this phenomenon.)

This may be more “correct”, but frankly, I think this tagline is cause for celebration. A vast Linguistic party, with lots of books, dictionaries, and a big cake that says “Congratulations, English, on your new gender neutral pronoun!”.

Times are changin’

Languages are constantly changing. When a population needs something new from the language that they speak, they create it. Whether that means new words, new constructions, or new usage patterns, you can’t hold a language still.

Well, English has a new need. Due to modern political correctness, we can no longer say “No one can outrun his destiny”. Although the grammar itself is quite indifferent to the social treatment of gender, it’s true that women are excluded from groups in speech when you use “his” with universal statements. So, we’ve tabooed the “universal his”, but we’ve never had a good way around it. We can use the awkward “his or her”, but human lazyness and reluctance to say more than necessary makes this undesirable. There have been proposals to create gender neutral pronouns (the Spivak pronouns, for one), but they’ve never caught on.

However, as languages tend to do, it looks like English has grown around the problem, and, in spoken usage, the third person plural forms (them, they, their) seem to have sprung up to bridge the gap, at least in this case. Now, this suggestion won’t go over well with lots of prescriptivists (people who think that there is a correct way to speak, and grammar is set), but change is inevitable, and the fact that this construction could make it onto a billboard and be the tagline for a major movie is a good indicator of this direction.

It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be “acceptable” for some time to come (there are already plenty of blogs trashing this tagline for its rebellion from conventional grammar). However, it will happen. In the same way that “whom” is gradually fading from use, this change will fade in. As one of my favorite quotes goes, “a grammarian trying to stop language change is like a gardener trying to stop continental drift”.

So, slowly but surely, the grammarians will give up, and English will finally have its gender neutral pronoun. When that day comes and the party happens, I’ll be right there at the front of the room, leading everybody in raising their glasses. See, isn’t that liberating?

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