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Murdering the Language

There’s an interesting feature on Tom Voigt, founder and publisher of ZodiacKiller.com, in the December issue of Portland Monthly. As kid who grew up in the 1970s just a couple of hours south of where the Zodiac operated—and who remembers when the San Francisco Chronicle published the last confirmed Zodiac letter—I’ve long been fascinated by the still-unsolved murders. But it’s not everyone’s jam. So proceed with caution.

However.

I feel like I need to point out something in the article unrelated to the horrors of true crime: the utter failure of the singular they if your aim is clear communication. Check it out:

Gaikowski was brought to Voigt’s attention by Blaine T. Smith, who has been known professionally and personally as simply “Blaine” or “Blaine Blaine.” Blaine was part of the Good Times newspaper collective alongside Gaikowski. Wildly intelligent and intensely complicated, Blaine appears trim, small, and wigged in photographs and rare film clips. They are still alive, 84 years young, and posting regularly to Facebook from a small town in New Mexico. I contacted Blaine but was unsuccessful in speaking to them as of press time—but not because they’ve gone silent.

I had to read that paragraph three times before I realized the author was deferring to Smith’s preferred pronouns rather than conventional English. Wait a sec, I thought. Both Gaikowski and Smith are 84 years old and alive?? I thought Gaikowski was dead… 

Now, I don’t want to get into an argument around whether we need gender-neutral pronouns or whether it’s insensitive or transphobic or whatever to use he and him for someone who is biologically male but doesn’t identify as such.* That’s not the point. It’s that using a plural pronoun for a singular subject isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. And a better writer (or editor) would have come up with a workaround rather than simply cave to the woke zeitgeist.

*Benjamin Dreyer addresses this issue in a particularly thought-provoking—not to mention helpful—way in Chapter 6 of his masterful Dreyer’s English.



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