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Is ‘or she’ necessary?

Joey King | Sunday, March 22, 2009

Procrastination is a human tendency – one that college students are familiar with. Its consequences, however, can be more far-reaching than the occasional all-nighter or a 2.7-inch spaced essay. Societies and cultures procrastinate too, and this is where the real damage is done.

If one finds a satisfactory way of performing a task, it can be easy to postpone or suspend entirely the search for a better way of performing the same task. Examples are everywhere. Consider how long monarchy was thought to be the best form of government, or mankind’s multi-millennial marriage to the geocentric model of the universe. Even in the 20th century, leaded gasoline was a great fuel, aerosol a nifty propellant, DDT an effective pesticide, and asbestos an ideal insulator.

When something seemingly does what it’s supposed to do, there’s no apparent need to change it. The problem is determining when finding a better way is justified. I don’t have a general solution. There is, however, one glaring and recent human development that must be stopped – the current necessity of the phrase “he or she.”

Someone realized that English was being sexist when it used the word “he” to refer to an individual of unknown gender in the third person. Instead of using “he” in such situations, it became more proper to use “he or she.” Lately, it is becoming acceptable to simply use “she.” “She” is not sexist.

Neither of these two developments are good solutions. The problem was realized, and a working solution was presented. “He or she” solves the problem. “She” solves the problem. But both solutions have their flaws.

“He or she” is taxing to write and say. It might not seem like much, but it adds up. Even if only one newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 used “he or she” where it once used “he” just one time a day for 365 days a year, it would constitute 182,500,000 extra characters after one year (excluding spaces). That’s enough to use more than 45,000 letter sized pieces of paper and hundreds of dollars worth of toner. And one newspaper with a circulation of 100,000 a day is a gross underestimate of the daily “or she” output in the United States alone.

Languages have inefficiencies. I’m not saying that English should be designed for efficiency, or that efficiency is at all a valid measure of the quality of a language. But it’s just plain unnecessary to introduce absurdities with negligible contribution to actual meaning, and superfluous letters are a tangible way to measure such a linguistic shift. Part of me truly believes that people understood an implied “or she” when confronted with the ambiguous “he.”

As for the “she” substitution – it’s trivial. How does this solve the original need for unabridged articulation?

Let’s just use the Esperanto word for “it.” The third person ambiguous singular pronoun is now “?i.” This has the English pronunciation of “jee,” and can be roughly anglicized as “he.” Pass it on.