Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Decline of Civilization Department (Part II)

I just filled out a recommendation web form for a student applying to a PhD program at Stanford. The form informed me: "The applicant has waived their right to view this recommendation."

I don't mean to pick on Stanford -- I bet those from other top schools have adopted this convenient barbarism also. I will watch.


  1. So what does that say about their opinion of _you_? (and others, of course, probably mostly...)

  2. Every paper recommendation form I've ever seen has included a statement that the applicant has the right to view their recommendations, and a blank for the student to sign if they agree to waive that right. And I have lots of colleagues who refuse to write recommendations without that signature. An electronic equivalent is hardly barbaric!

    Wait... you're not actually complaining about the Shakespearian "they", are you?

    1. I am complaining about the use of "their" as an unmarked singular. In a protocol about applying for a Doctor of Philosophy degree at a top university.

    2. Your colleague Steven Pinker likes singular “their” just fine:

      Personally, I prefer avoiding the situation altogether.

  3. We still don't have a satisfactory approach to gender neutrality. I'm looking forward to "the applicant has waived its right...." I still use their instinctively to avoid picking a gender. I just had to wade through a whole paper alternately switching they to he and she.

  4. Language changes and evolves and that's okay-dokey.
    So just chill out and undwindulax.

    At one time baseball was spelled base ball.
    Would you really want your book to be titled

    Base Ball as a Second language.

    And to the issue at hand- how would you phrase the
    ``applicant has phrased their right...''
    to be gender- neutral?

  5. Of course language changes. We would not be in this fix if we had not decided that "his," "man," "mankind," and so on could no longer be used to refer to persons of unknown gender, as used to be perfectly proper. I particularly like the way the Massachusetts General laws still define rape: "Whoever has sexual intercourse or unnatural sexual intercourse with a person, and compels such person to submit by force and against his will …." We decided for political reasons that this grammatical construction would no longer do. Fine. Different workarounds work under different circumstances. In this particular case "his or her" works fine. It is awkward when you have to keep repeating it. Sometimes the whole sentence can be pluralized (doesn't work for the waiver). Sometimes passives work. Sloppy use of "their" can be semantically ambiguous.

    Actually, if I could fix one irrational thing about English it would be the convention of putting periods and commas (but not semicolons or question marks) inside closed quotation marks even when they semantically belong outside. There is an example of that absurdity in the paragraph above!