Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla helped explain the mysteries of pronouns to the Princesses a few years ago, via “Schoolhouse Rock.”
Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, if you’re not (shame on you) familiar with “Schoolhouse Rock” curriculum:
Now, I have a friend named Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla,
And I could say that Rufus found a kangaroo
That followed Rufus home
And now that kangaroo belongs
To Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla.
Whew! I could say that, but I don’t have to,
‘Cause I got pronouns,
I can say, “HE found a kangaroo that followed HIM home and now IT is HIS.”
Problem is, the sentence works only if you know for sure that Rufus is a boy. Similarly, when the song gets into the next verse, about his sister Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla, who found an aardvark, you can sing with confidence about HER aardvark only because you know, as his sister, that she’s a girl.
What if you knew only that Rufus had a sibling named Taylor? Or Cameron? Or Pat?
Enter the solution proposed by James Jarrad of Lebanon, who wrote a whole book dedicated to solving that problem. “The Case of the Missing Pronoun” proposes we start using the word “hu” – pronounced “Hugh,” short for “human” – anytime we’re talking about a generic person or a person whose gender isn’t known.
Jarrad spends 213 pages trying to convince us to change our wicked ways. He is absolutely right that English has no convenient solutions to this problem. Right now, writers have to chose between the stuffy-sounding “one,” go for the traditional “he,” take up a bunch of space by saying “he or she/his or her,” or twist everything into plurality so as to accurately use “they.”
Thing is, however, we’re not looking for a convenient solution. We’ve already voted, and, at least in verbal speech, “they,” inaccurate as it may be for a singular use, has won.
Little Princess used it just last week. “There’s this kid in my day camp,” she told me, “and I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. His hair – I mean, her hair – THEIR hair is all short and spiky, but he – she – THEIR shirt was pink with a flower on it.”
Not that either of the Princesses is the final word on proper use of the English language. When Slightly Older Princess was a toddler, she’d tell me, “Here comes Little Princess! Here comes she!”
And really, when you think about it, why don’t we say it that way?
Well, we don’t say it that way because we just don’t. Because that’s not how our language developed. Because we say, “Here she comes.” (I’d like to say, “Because I said so,” but I get accused of saying that a bit too often for some people’s comfort.)
We also aren’t supposed to start a sentence with “Because.” I know this because I was an English major and it’s part of my job to write according to the rules of English. The sad truth, however, is usage trumps accuracy.
Not long ago, remember, “grow” was a verb and “text” was a noun, not the other way around. People gave incentives instead of “incenting.” Apparently, “office” is now a verb as well, as in, “to office.” (Nobody asked me about this.)
No, it isn’t grammatically correct to use “their” when talking about a single person. We don’t have a neutral single-person pronoun, which is Jarrad’s whole point. But that hasn’t stopped us from deciding we’re going to use “their” anyway. And since when have Americans been interested in swapping out convenience for the sake of correctness? Remember Prohibition? Dollar coins? New Coke? The days schoolteachers insisted we were all going to start using the metric system?
I don’t begrudge Jarrad his efforts. Good for him for sticking to his guns. But I think Little Princess and the rest of her generation are probably going to stick with “their” – unless “hu” ends up “Schoolhouse Rock.”