Even Facebook can’t figure out the he/she/they thing

This is something I will have to include soon English 328 as part of the discussion about style manuals I like to have– I’m starting that again first thing next week, actually: “He/She/They: Grammar and Facebook,” which is on the Facebook blog/news page. I have an article about this on my computer at home, but not on my laptop, so I’ll have to update this post later. Anyway, Facebook folks apparently aren’t keen on the use of plural third-person pronouns in an effort at gender neutrality– as in “Steve is getting themself another cup of coffee.” So here’s their solution:

For this reason, we’ve decided to request that all Facebook users fill out this information on their profile. If you haven’t yet selected a sex, you will probably see a prompt to choose whether you want to be referred to as “him” or “her” in the coming weeks. When you make a selection, that will appear in Mini-Feed and News Feed stories about you, but it won’t be searchable or displayed in your Basic Information.

We’ve received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account, including how we refer to you in Mini-Feed.

This is quite a departure from Strunk and White’s discussion of this in The Elements of Style, where they (White?) begin with “The use of he as a pronoun for embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the conventions of the English language.” The third edition of The Elements of Style, the last one that White had anything to do with (and btw, Strunk died in the 1950s or 40s or so), goes/rants on about this issue for several paragraphs. In the fourth edition though, published long after White was gone, the sentence right after the one I quote above, is “Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive.”

Who says rules are forever?

By the way, it turns out that the fourth edition of The Elements of Style is available online at Scribd, and linked to here. I tried to embed the whole thing, but it messed up the formatting here.

Oh, and PPS:  here’s the Yahoo news article on this I was looking for….

One thought on “Even Facebook can’t figure out the he/she/they thing”

  1. Besides the gender limitations of “he/she,” the constant use of the singular “they” on Facebook makes it sound like it’s run by a bunch of 15 year olds. I admit that I can get a bit pissy about agreement sometimes.

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