Nesbit's use of "it"

HSchinske at HSchinske at
Wed Dec 3 17:03:18 EST 2003

In a message dated 12/2/03 9:11:48 PM Central Standard Time, Charlie writes:

> Well, I'd missed that too :-) But I had noticed Nesbit's habit of using =
> 'it' to refer to a child, when either sex or both might be being =
> referred to (as in sentences of this kind: 'Each of the children was =
> looking forward to its tea.') When I first read Nesbit I thought this =
> was probably be a feature of writing from that period - influenced =
> either by a particularly sexless view of childhood, or by languages like =
> German where 'Kind' is indeed neuter. Now it occurs to me that I don't =
> remember coming across it since in any other writer. Is it a Nesbitism =
> specifically, or was this usage widespread?

It's a Nesbitism, but I'd qualify that -- I don't recall any 
Victorian/Edwardian author but Nesbit saying things like "After everyone had washed its hands 
for tea," but I *do* remember some Victorian and maybe Edwardian authors 
saying "it" for things like puppies, kittens, and babies, even when the gender of 
said small creature was known to the reader.

Since Nesbit was usually writing about a group of both boys and girls, I 
think she took the sensible view that we have a neuter pronoun in English, why not 
use it when it's needed? But "it" has such a long history of being used as a 
withering dehumanizer ("Oh, look. It thinks It can eat lunch with us. Let's 
dump milk on Its head to teach It a lesson") that many people aren't happy using 
it that way.

Helen Schinske
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