Epicene avoidance?

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Tue Nov 9 11:52:27 UTC 2010

Hi Damien,

The sentence "Applicants must have obtained his or her doctorate by
the date of taking up the post" is just silly. You're right that it's
bad editing or bad writing. There's nothing wrong with "they" here
even from a prescriptivist point of view. By the way, what's the
advantage of "epicene they" over "gender-neutral they"? "Epicene they"
gets 843 googlits; "gender-neutral they" 52,700. I'd heard of epicene
nouns in Spanish and other European languages. But "epicene they" is
new to me. It'll grow on me.


Paul Frank
Chinese, German, French, Italian > English
Espace de l'Europe 16
Neuch√Ętel, Switzerland
paulfrank at bfs.admin.ch
paulfrank at post.harvard.edu

On Tue, Nov 9, 2010 at 11:50 AM, Damien Hall <damien.hall at york.ac.uk> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender: Â  Â  Â  American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster: Â  Â  Â  Damien Hall <damien.hall at YORK.AC.UK>
> Subject: Â  Â  Â Epicene avoidance?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> An ad for a Mellon post-doc in Sociolinguistics at Oxford, posted
> yesterday, contains what looks like a strange tactic to avoid epicene
> 'they':
> 2) 'Applicants must have obtained his or her doctorate by the date of
> taking up the post'
> If we take this at face value, it's very awkward to me; no matter what you
> think of the epicene pronoun, it would surely have been more natural to
> write
> 2) 'Applicants must have obtained their doctorate ...', or (to avoid the
> epicene _and_ retain plural 'applicants') 'a / the doctorate'.
> The more I look at this, the more likely it seems that it's a bad piece of
> editing combining aspects of (2) with aspects of
> 3) 'The successful applicant must have obtained his / her doctorate ...'
> (but it would be strange not to address a job-ad to _anyone_ who wanted to
> apply, as opposed to just the successful applicant).
> This may not be a new combination to people who collect these (apologies if
> it isn't), but it's new on me, and sufficiently strange-sounding that I
> thought it worth posting here. For reference, and for anyone interested in
> the posting because of its grammatical strangeness or for any other
> reason(!), the whole thing is here:
> http://www.jobs.ac.uk/job/ABX022/mellon-postdoctoral-fellowship-sociolinguistics/
> Damien
> --
> Damien Hall
> Accent and Identity on the Scottish-English Border
> Department of Language and Linguistic Science, University of York
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