Monday, May 09, 2011


Because the internet likes nothing more than linguistic pseudo-analysis, here we go again...

To quibble about how the pronoun "they" has come to stand for an individual of indeterminate sex becomes less worthy of bothering. Although clearly the term started as representing a group of more than one, the tradition of applying the masculine pronoun "he" in the context of representing a person who may actually be female carries the association of sexism in contemporary rhetoric. The lack of a singular pronoun in English that indicates a person (as opposed to an object) where the gender is unknown, combined with the awkwardness of "he/she" in certain contexts, has caused "they" to be adopted (or perhaps co-opted) to fill that void in common parlance. That is what has happened; there's no arguing that point.

Whether it's good or not is another story, but when it comes to casual vernacular my position is noted at the beginning of the post: it's not worth being too much of a stickler. I'm not suggesting in conversation I've never employed "they" in such a context, although in writing I try to use "he/she" (because I suppose it acknowledges the singular nature of those pronouns while eschewing a quasi-sexist tradition that I genuinely have no problem with seeing fade away).

But let's be clear about something: While "they" was adapted to fulfill a need, it must make the sentence easier. Also, that does not make it acceptable for it to be worked into common expressions that emerged from the era when "he" was used in that context. Take, for example, changing "To each his own" to "To each their own."

Again, I understand what that change is trying to achieve, but I must admit I cannot help but cringe a bit at seeing that combination of the indisputably singular "each" with the still mostly pluralistic "their." It just sounds awkward to my ear, and thus fails to be the best way to approach improving the phrase for a non-sexist world. (I have employed "To each his or her own" on occasion, but even that lacks an appropriate panache.) But when left to casual usage, it's not a big deal.

However, now Honda has taken what is otherwise a moderately well-done TV commercial, showing a bunch of disparate characters (ranging from Mexican wrestlers to zombies) all finding vehicles, and conclude with the slogan "To each their own."

I grasp that any ad with zombies is not taking itself too seriously, but a national advertising campaign is not something I can consider "casual" usage. For me, that does cross a line, and actively affects my experience when watching the commercial—which, obviously, is otherwise one that I would watch and not merely fast-forward past; it was so close.

I'm sure that most people think nothing of that slogan, but I have to imagine that I'm not the only one who noticed it and couldn't quite let it go. Conceivably a number of those others who suffer this same… heck, I'll even classify this as a malady… may be in the market for a new car, and this commercial might leave them disinclined to consider a Honda for such a purchase. Sure, a purely intellectual decision would prioritize the quality of the vehicle, but we are emotional beings first and foremost. In this period when extensive marketing research strives to avoid offending anyone, it appears that those who have an inclination toward formal grammar are a demographic that need not be acknowledged.

But even with such a group having to accept their second-class status from Madison Avenue, must such an established phrase be misappropriated this way? Is there no one left in the ad game who is clever enough to come up with something better?

Yes, that question is purely rhetorical; the answer clearly has been established.

I'm not suggesting that I have a better idea, but here's a slogan that would achieve better traditional grammar (or at least come closer), and doesn't seem horrible: To all their own.

(I'm not saying it's good; it's merely not horrible.)

Here's the thing: Coming up with a slogan for Honda is not my job. However, this does make me think that I went into the wrong career. Were it not for the burden of the shred of integrity I fancy I possess, imagine the money I could be making without having to try to be clever.

I'm stupid for doing even that much for free. I know. (Well, amongst the ways in which I am stupid is that.) If only I had been smart enough to be stupid in better ways, I might have the best thing of all: oblivion.

As always, the point here is that were I ignorant of (in this case) grammatical agreement of pronouns, presumably I'd enjoy the world a lot more. Or be better suited for a career in advertising.

1 comment:

  1. If I had a nickel for every time I saw the comma misused on a billboard, on TV or in printed media, I would be able to pay someone to comment on other people's blogs for me. It drives me insane.

    I agree, though. Honda needs a whack. Or they just need to fire their ad agency. Ads are generally getting more moronic all the time. I blame it on the poor quality of PR/mass comm graduates in the last 20 years, not necessarily on the declining intelligence of the audience.


So, what do you think?