Gender offender – An Irishman’s Diary about linguistic neutrality

Casting a cold eye on key texts

 “Even allowing for the passage of 99 years, the Proclamation’s lack of gender balance is striking.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

“Even allowing for the passage of 99 years, the Proclamation’s lack of gender balance is striking.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins


A female reader gave out to me a while back in the comments forum for my “use of male as normative” in part of that day’s column. As least, I think the reader was female – that may be presumptuous. At any rate, the user name was “Libby”.

I’d been writing about “emotional inflation in the internet age”, especially the tendency of people on Twitter to claim they’re “incredibly excited” about this or “incredibly proud” about that. And my offence (for which I plead guilty, to spare the court unnecessary trouble) involved a sentence in which I lamented the false modesty of such exaggerations, viz: “If somebody tells you he’s incredibly proud about something, he’s also hinting that humility is his normal state.”

Now I know perfectly well that it’s no longer the done thing to follow the gender-neutral “somebody” with the gender-specific “his” – it’s not as if I haven’t been paying attention for the last 40 years. But the problem in general is the English language’s appalling lack of a neutral pronoun for such sentences. And my problem in particular is that I still can’t bring myself to adopt the most common solution, using “they” or “their” after a singular subject.

Yes, I do it in conversation all the time; although even when spoken (as, for example, by that man who says “the mobile customer you are calling may have their unit powered off”), the usage still sometimes makes my ears bleed. But whatever about speech, I’m fiercely reluctant to use the singular “they” or “their” in print.

I realise this battle is already lost. In fact, I read of late that even the American Copy Editors Association – traditionally resistant to the usage – is edging closer to acceptance. Maybe I’m like that Japanese soldier who was still fighting the second World War in 1972. So be it – unless my commanding officer flies to this Pacific jungle in person to tell me it’s over, I won’t believe it.

Instead, whenever the problem arises in a sentence, I usually go back and make the subject plural, or I adopt other avoidance manoeuvres. As for the case cited above, I must have been feeling reckless that day. Perhaps I was in a rush, and when the old-fashioned somebody/his shortcut appeared ahead, beside a “no entry” sign, I just went for it. It won’t happen again, Guard, I swear.

Anyway, I was reminded of that reader’s comment by the news in Britain recently that a group of Anglican women want God to be henceforth called a “she” by clergy, at least some of the time. I know that’s taking us well beyond questions of grammar. But the context of their call was the increasing feminisation of their church, which in March led to the appointment of a first female bishop – a woman called “Libby” Lane.

I’m not suggesting this was the same Libby. I’m sure the new bishop has enough local sinners to deal with it without patrolling The Irish Times website trying to save wretches like me. It’s just a little coincidence, no doubt. In any case I wish the Anglican women well in their struggle to make the Bible gender-neutral – they like a challenge, obviously.

But their story also set me thinking about what other canonical texts might need rewriting in these days of gender equality. Whereupon my attention quickly fell on that notorious example of female-normative bias, the 1916 Proclamation.

This was of course the work of a poet. And it’s well known that in poetic circles, Ireland has always been considered a woman, usually named “Cathleen”. Even so, and allowing for the passage of 99 years, the Proclamation’s lack of gender balance is striking.

In its opening sentence alone – the one invoking God and Ireland’s dead generations – it has a “she” followed by three “her”s. But this is as nothing compared with the longer second sentence, which has no fewer than two “she”s and six “her”s. That’s 12 female references already, and Pearse still hasn’t declared the Republic.

In fact, as if sensing he was overdoing it, he changes tack in paragraph three, using the first and third person plurals instead, both gender-neutral. And in the fourth paragraph, the now-declared Republic is a singular subject, taking the gender-free possessive “its”.

But the female Ireland re-emerges in the document’s conclusion. Meanwhile, there are only two male-normative references throughout – to Ireland’s “manhood” and “the Irish Republican Brotherhood”. Despite all of which, the British somehow saw fit to execute 16 leaders, all male. Miraculously, Countess Markievicz escaped with a short prison sentence.