October 14, 2005

E.B. White on gender-neutral writing.

David Gelertner detests the new edition of "Elements of Style," which has added illustrations by New Yorker artists Maira Kalman:
The problem with these pictures is their strange relation to the text. A section on pronouns includes a sample sentence that mentions "Polly." On the facing page is a loud, large picture of Polly--who has nothing to do with the topic under discussion. Ms. Kalman's pictures are like a kibitzer's random observations during a conversation among friends.
Whimsy does not amuse Gelertner, who seems to attribute many of his own ideas to to "Elements" co-author E.B. White:
[White] insisted on simplicity, clarity, concreteness. He would have despised subliterate email, unedited Web ramblings and gaseous literary criticism posing as philosophy.
But enough rambling. Let's get to the point I wanted to make, as evinced by the post title:
White ... hated politicized writing; in 1979, he added a new rule to "Elements" to explain just why "gender-neutral writing" is ridiculous. "The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances." But the 1999 revision slips an extra sentence into White's rule, like an assassin slipping a stiletto into someone's back: "Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive." But White never minded offending people. He rejected the trendy and glitzy. He admired good craftsmanship. He didn't mind being called old-fashioned.
I wonder if we regret it now, shifting over to gender-neutral writing. We sacrificed elegance to make a political point -- over and over again, in texts that have nothing to do with gender politics, and long after everyone has absorbed and accepted the point. Women are equal. We all get it. And yet we must go on forever, writing (and speaking) awkwardly.

64 comments:

Jonathan said...

Other languages have developed masculine and feminine word forms and no one makes a fuss about which nouns and pronouns go with which gender. Indeed everyone knows that the gender of words does not reflect on the sex of speakers, readers or writers. But English pronouns are mainly neuter, except for the personal pronoun "he" that everyone used to understand is neuter, and a bunch of zealous ninnies who probably don't speak other languages insist that we bowdlerize our speech and writing with awkward phrases like "he or she" or -- worse -- the ungrammatical and ambiguous "their."

I suspect that the rot would not have spread nearly so far but for the enforcement of the new rules by the always-PC publishing industry, which has been hounding nonfiction (and particularly textbook) authors for years.

Freeman Hunt said...

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. As a woman, I actually find it insulting. I always considered myself part of the general "he" before all the awkwardness. Now it's as though someone said, "Oh you poor sensitive little dear, don't worry your pretty head, we'll make it explicit that you are included." Gag.

Selesai said...

"Women are equal. We all get it."
If we all got it, this wouldn't even be an issue.
"He" is understood by "everyone" to indicate "anyone", regardless of gender, because said use was perpetrated by a male-dominated society. The importance of language to a culture should not be underestimated.
Would either of you be so upset if we just used "she" all of the time? You would then suggest it is a concession to those horrible feminists. And yet you accept unquestioningly the usage promulgated by male chauvanists.

And Jonathan-- "their" is not an "ungrammatical" word. It was traditionally used as another form of "you" and only gradually has been regaining that use.

me said...

The Elements of Style is a perfect work. On the gender neutral issue, it is theoretically correct and practically wrong.

Given that writers have switched to general neutral writing, to not use it calls unnecessary attention to the writer, and distracts from the message.

The cows have left the barn.

Jonathan said...

Re: "Their"

I often read sentences that take this form:

"A good fire fighter always takes care of their fire truck."

This is elegant and grammatical usage? I don't know what it means. Whose fire truck?

James d. said...

While words do matter, most people can only operate with the language they inherit. English doesn't happen to have a neutral pronoun. So...feel free to use "he or she" if eloquence isn't required, or feel free to use "she" if you don't mind strange looks and rolls of the eyes. But it's not some conscious decision of pig-headed men to use "he" instead of something else.
That being said, "their" is something worth exploring, although I can't see that being as easy of a fix as it seems at first glance.

Do Spanish-speaking nations get bent out of shape on this? After all, in Spanish, if you're referring to a group that includes 1,000,000 girls and 1 boy, the male pronoun takes precedence. Or something like that.

L. Ron Halfelven said...

For me, the best approach to the generic masculine is the same as the best approach to the split infinitive: avoid it if you can, use it if you must.

reader_iam said...

This summer I spent some time re-reading a portion of E.B. White's work. What a pure joy!

Long live the original Elements of Style! I'm with you, Freeman Hunt.

For Christmas, as a splurge for myself, I plan on ordering the complete set of New Yorkers on DVD, which has recently become available. I can't wait to read some of the wonderful work by White and his cohorts from back in the day.

I'm hoping this will serve as a compensation for the time I must spend editing corporate work, in which in-house style sheets require me to make changes which I'm sure would set White a-rollin' in his grave. The policy journal editing that I do doesn't require this so much, but even then I sometimes feel that I'm inserting flat notes into a lovely melody (luckily, in that work, I'm more often removing the bad notes).

So it goes ... a girl's gotta eat.

Freeman Hunt said...

And yet you accept unquestioningly the usage promulgated by male chauvanists.

Aside from the fact that this point is arguable, so what if this usage of "he" and "his" was promulgated that way? That's not why people use "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun anymore. I don't feel threatened by the male chauvanists of the past. Do you?

Pastor_Jeff said...

It's a battle that's been raging in Christian circles for 20+ years, as Bible publishers have staked out various positions from traditional to progressive. A number of more modern versions have tried to clarify language ("sons and daughters of God," or "the one who believes" for "he who believes"), but on the farthest end, almost all references to gender are eliminated, even where it fundamentally changes the meaning of the original text.

I don't know how big a problem this is for women - do you learn to automatically "translate" masculine singular as you hear it?

Selesai said...

"While words do matter, most people can only operate with the language they inherit."

Untrue. Such a statement implies that language is a static thing when, in fact, language is constantly evolving. Just ask the folks at the OED.

Selesai said...

"So what if this usage of "he" and "his" was promulgated that way? That's not why people use "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun anymore. I don't feel threatened by the male chauvanists of the past. Do you?"

Whether I feel threatened is not the point. To suggest that it doesn't matter why a certain usage was originally promulgated betrays a significant ignorance as to how that original intention colors, and continues to color, the language itself.
Perhaps all one can hope for is a questioning of the usage, much like this one.

Steve Donohue said...

Very little more quickly distracts me from the point an author is attempting to make that a clumsily placed "he/she".

If your point is gender equality, by all means, included the awkward pronoun set. It helps to make your point. But when discussing something completely unrelated to the issue, don't muddle up your prose. That's the point White was trying to make, and I think it's even more pertinent today that when he made it.

But that isn't even the broken rule of Strunk and White than annoys me the most. Much more annoying is the use of the apostrophe after a singular noun that ends in "s" to signify possession. The correct formulation is "Charles's friend", not "Charles' Friend".

The other broken rule that annoys me is the improper use of commas. In a list of three or more, a comma gets placed after EVERY item in the list, save the final one. So, a list would be written "apples, oranges, and bananas", not "apples, oranges and bananas".

Freeman Hunt said...

To suggest that it doesn't matter why a certain usage was originally promulgated betrays a significant ignorance as to how that original intention colors, and continues to color, the language itself.

and. .

in fact, language is constantly evolving.

Exactly. And so the use of "he" no longer has a sexist connotation to it if it ever did at all).

I am a woman, and I am not offended by "he" though I am offended by being pandered or condescended to. The whole he/she thing strikes me as pandering and condescension.

Jonathan said...

"A Mountie always gets her man!"

. ...er,

"A Mountie always gets his or her man or woman!?!"

. .. um,

"A Mountie always gets their wymyn."

...feh,

"A Mountie, s/he gets always the person?"

. .... yeah, that's it.

Pastor_Jeff said...

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

bill said...

"A good fire fighter always takes care of their fire truck."

This is elegant and grammatical usage? I don't know what it means. Whose fire truck?


The problem isn't the pronoun sex, it's the singular disagreement. Easy fix: "Good firefighters always take care of their fire truck." If you're talking about Jim, use his; if you're talking about Jane, use her.

I spend much of my writing - job as a technical writer - removing gender pronouns. Usually I'm placing the emphasis on the action, not the actor. Still, sometimes a pronoun must be used and attempting to follow the rules and be nonsexist can lead to some unweildy sentences requiring much rewriting.

One of the more annoying habits I usually see in more academic writings is alternating the sex. Chapter one uses male pronouns, chapter two uses female. This is jarring and draws overdue attention to the usage. Since it's rarely explained, this style looks like particular instances aren't gender neutral; takes getting used to.

I don't use it in formal writing, but have always enjoyed the s/he construct. Doesn't work for speech, though. I guess a similar type might be himmer, but that's plain silly.

In the end, I'll usually rewrite to remove personal pronouns.

TheRosicrucian said...

I just read the lament of a Saudi woman. It seems women there have to obtain written permission from a male guardian to do any number of things. What they wouldn't give to bear the harsh burden of American gender-specifc rhetoric.

somross said...

I adore E.B.White, and have several editions of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, dating back to the late 60s, when I first used it in high school. Although I absorbed many of Strunk and White's rules about grammar and usage (omit needless words, use an apostrophe + s for proper name possessives, use active voice) I think the use of the masculine pronoun, while perhaps more elegant, has become archaic. I've taught English since the mid-70s, and even before the shift to adding feminine pronouns, the way most student writers used the singular pronoun was awkward. I suggest students just use the plural. Nothing wrong with "their" if the antecedent is plural. And Americans should stay away from "one," which we rarely use in conversation. (Too many years of reading compositions full of "One must do one's best if one is going to succeed...")

Smilin' Jack said...

I don't see why using "she" appeases the feminists, as "she" is obviously merely a derivative of "he,", just as "chairman" derives from "man." In fact, I believe "she" arose as a contaction of the Old English form "sissy-he."

:-)

Ann Althouse said...

Himmer? LOL. Sounds dirty!

Freeman: Good idea. Let's evolve beyond the awkward constructions and go back to the streamlined masculine pronoun. Let's evolve away from taking offense, toward beauty.

And let me say how much I hate the suggestion that we rewrite everything into the plural and emphasize the action rather than the subject. The writer ought to have control of such things and make choices that have to do with the subject he's writing about and not get distracted by a holdover requirement to avoid offending phantoms from the past.

Joan said...

And yet we must go on forever, writing (and speaking) awkwardly.

No, we mustn't. I, too, spend a fair amount of time re-writing to remove unnecessary personal pronouns. But I don't have a problem using the generic "he" or "his."

My hope is that eventually everyone will realize how stupid and embarrassing this kerfuffle is, and go back to doing things as White originally prescribed.

Jeff said...

What chaps my hide is when "person" is used even when the gender of a subject is known, i.e "Congressperson" Jane Doe or "Spokesperson" John Doe.

I mean, who suddenly decided that everyone should strive for gender-nuetral language? Who decided FOR US that the English language needed to be artificially re-defined, from the TOP DOWN?

As I said in the comments on "gender fluidity":

"I agree with Freeman on the language issue. My biggest beef with PC-ness is the Orwellian use of language as a means of re-ordering culture to suit one's political agenda. The complicity of the media in this was one of the major things that unmoored me from the "left".

The "gender is a construct" academics and their media fellow travellers have engaged in a 30-year long (at least) campaign to define language in their terms and render any dissent as thoughtcrimes."

"language is constantly evolving" -Not in this case.
Evolution implies an organic process, while gender nuetralizing English is as artificial a project as breeding a poodle from a wolf.

Language is being culled of un-PC elements, it is being politically cleansed of "impurities" as a means of directing the great unwashed towards the secular paradise of the gender theorists' Orwellian fantasies.

bill said...

Steven (9:55), what your response points to is the hazard of competing standards and using style standards as laws, not as guides. I reference a handful of style guides and have helped write department style guides. Not all agree and sometimes you just have to pick one and stick with it for consistency.

Much more annoying is the use of the apostrophe after a singular noun that ends in "s" to signify possession. The correct formulation is "Charles's friend", not "Charles' Friend".

Generally correct. The Chicago Manual of Style says it is "largely faithful to Strunk and White" before listing a couple pages of exceptions (7.19-7.23). In section 5.27, CMS writes "But if a word ends in a sibilant, it is acceptable (especially in journalism) to use a final apostrophe without the additional s (Bill Gates' testimony).

So, a list would be written "apples, oranges, and bananas", not "apples, oranges and bananas".

I'll agree with you and so will most authorities; however, omitting the comma isn't incorrect, it's just a less frequently used standard.

Here's one in your writing that made me think you were English or raised in a British school: bananas". The American style (see Strunk and White and CMS) is to place periods and commas inside the quotes. The British style is outside.

American: A list would be written "apples, oranges, and bananas," not "apples, oranges and bananas."

British: a list would be written "apples, oranges, and bananas", not "apples, oranges and bananas".

Freeman Hunt said...

Language is being culled of un-PC elements, it is being politically cleansed of "impurities" as a means of directing the great unwashed towards the secular paradise of the gender theorists' Orwellian fantasies.

This is my favorite sentence so far today.

bill said...

Ann said: And let me say how much I hate the suggestion that we rewrite everything into the plural and emphasize the action rather than the subject.

I think this was responding to my comment. For clarity, I wasn't saying this is the way to write, just using it as an example for what I do for the type of writing I do.

Styles and standards should reflect the work, the audience, and the message. They are important for consistency and being understood. If overadherence to a grammar rule will confuse the reader, that rule should be ignored (for that situation).

Those are my general guidelines.

Richard Fagin said...

When I submit formal drawings in a patent application to replace the informal ones filed with the application, I have to send them under cover of a letter to the Official Draftsperson at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Enough said.

bill said...

Jonathan said:"A Mountie always gets her man!"

edit_1: A Mountie always gets hisser man!

Edit_2:Keeping it singular and removing gender bias: The Mountie is known for always capturing an escaped fugitive.

reader_iam said...

Regarding the serial comma issue:

Omitting the comma before the "and" is a less used standard in terms of what most major stylebooks (Chicago, APA, MLA, NY etc.), but in actual usage may not be so, if you take into consideration the sheer volume of print output of newspapers etc. on a daily basis. Newspapers generally adhere to the AP stylebook, which specifically proscribes the final comma and has done so for decades. Many magazines and online outlets also eschew the serial comma.

In short, it depends on the media and context.

Regards,

Style-book juggler

vbspurs said...

Do Spanish-speaking nations get bent out of shape on this? After all, in Spanish, if you're referring to a group that includes 1,000,000 girls and 1 boy, the male pronoun takes precedence. Or something like that.

Hey! I was just about to make that pedantic point. Boo.

And yes, that is true not only of Spanish, but most Indo-European tongues (which all have the feminine/masculine).

Example, Portuguese:

"Os filhos da mãe"

Mother's children BUT literally-speaking the sons of the mother. That's used even if she has 7 daughters, and just 1 son.

Not only is English the only language that is truly hung up on this, because let's face it, the Anglosphere contains the most guilty people on the face of this earth...

...but there are other PC-and-gender-neutral driven phrases which mean nothing in other languages.

When a Chinese exchange student complained in our History class once, that someone had used the word Peking and not Beijing, I turned around and asked:

"Will you contact Le Monde and tell them to stop using Pekin, or will I?"

He didn't reply.

Cheers,
Victoria

knoxgirl said...

Selesai,

This kind of whining over "he/she" makes women look overly sensitive to silly things and weak, not strong...certainly not equal. If you think this sort of thing is actually holding women back, then you're the sexist for thinking we are that lame!

Get over it, and start caring about things that really matter to women. See rosicrucian's post for an example.

I'm so sick of feminists stuck on this retro stuff that may have mattered 30 years ago -- if it even really mattered then!

HaloJonesFan said...

I don't have a problem with using "their" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Yes, sometimes you have to re-write a sentence to avoid singularity strangeness, but that isn't really such a huge problem.

Particularly since the alternatives are worse, such as "s/he", which in my opinion is s/hit.

Jonathan said...

PS, I fear I have been guilty of speciesism. I should have written:

The Canadian national police official and her or his equine partner, being in the vicinity (unless away on family leave), the alleged fugitive very likely will be apprehended.

I like the ring of that.

James d. said...

His or her equine partner?

Does that imply some sort of overly close relationship between the Canadian national police official and said partner?

As per my much earlier comment about people only able to use the language that they inherit, what I meant was not that language does not evolve, but simply that most people do not care, do not have time, and do not have the ability to pick apart their language and decide what to keep and what to change. Something like using "he" is more of a default option in our society, rather than a conscious choice. Obviously, if schools were to drive home a different usage, that might change, and later generations might inherit a different understanding of the situation.

Steve Donohue said...

"apples, oranges, and bananas".

The reason I included the period on the outside is that the quotation is not a sentence, while the wider sentence is. I follow the rules to which I understand the logic.

Likewise, I understand the logic behind always making singular posessives "'s". I know there are some exceptions- "Jesus", for example- but it is best to avoid the posessive in favor of the genitive in such instances.

Likewise, commas separate equal things. Without the second comma in "apples, oranges(,) and bananas", it is implied to me that the last two in the list are together the equal of the first one, while that is usually not the case.

There are other accepted uses, but I fail to understand their logic. Alas, language need not always follow the dictates of logic.

And unfortunately I wasn't educated in England. Just Chicago. :-)

somross said...

About active voice: Strunk and White are offering guidelines for students, not telling accomplished writers what to do. Some people write extensively in passive voice, even though they never speak that way: I'm guessing it has something to do with the way their brains process language (and of course, not every language uses S - V - O order, either). It's not the judicious use of passive that's a problem; it's students who write sentence after sentence in painful passive constructions.

Ann Althouse said...

HaloJones: "I don't have a problem with using "their" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Yes, sometimes you have to re-write a sentence to avoid singularity strangeness, but that isn't really such a huge problem."

Spoken like someone who doesn't care very much about writing. If you have a feeling for writing -- an ear -- rearranging things matters a lot. The enforcers of gender neutrality are, I suspect, people who never saw the beauty they felt no compunction about destroying.

Kev said...

Pastor Jeff: "It's a battle that's been raging in Christian circles for 20+ years, as Bible publishers have staked out various positions from traditional to progressive."

And it's even worse in the hymnals, in some cases. My sister and I were raised Methodist but both attend churches of other denominations now, and we get a good laugh every Christmas when we go back to our parents' Methodist church and end up singing hymns like "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice" (the "Friends" replacing "Men" in the original). We usually make cracks about it being the "PC Hymnal" or something like that.

(And in re-reading my previous sentence, I realize that, as an educator, the word "Christmas" would even be considered un-PC in the public schools. Sheesh.)

Pastor_Jeff said...

Ann, Kev,

rearranging things matters a lot.

Compare these translations from the New International Version (the most popular Bible) and the gender-neutral Today's NIV:

Luke 17:3

NIV: If your brother sins [against you], rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

TNIV: If any brother or sister sins against you, rebuke the offender; and if they repent, forgive them.

"If any brother or sister sins ... forgive them"?


And yes, the hymnal changes are even worse:

'Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation!
O my soul praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!'

'Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the God of Creation!
My heart is longing to offer up sweet adoration!'

(Proposed revision to the Lutheran Book of Worship)

The revised hymnal will also include options for prayers that refer to God and Jesus as "holy eternal majesty" and "holy incarnate word" instead of "father" and "son."

It seems to get a little silly after a while.

Ann Althouse said...

Pastor Jeff: Those are painful examples. I was once in a discussion about this with a religious person who got completely outraged by the word "father" to refer to God. She went on and on about how some people have been sexually molested by their fathers and for them to hear the word "father" for God was a terrible thing. What's the alternative translation? Parent? "Our parent, who art in Heaven..."?

jinnmabe said...

It is a little painful to watch someone try to force reality to conform with his (or her) personal feelings.

It feels a little dirty now, to use a gender-neutralism.

March Hare said...

I absolutely hate words ending in "person"! If you don't know whether the head of an event is the "Chairman" or the "Chairwoman," for cryin' out loud, just refer to the position as the "Chair." Perfectly acceptable, shorter, gender-neutral, and less awkward.

vbspurs said...

Ann, The Anchoress linked to your blogpost, calling it a "little gem".

Of course, I wouldn't have to tell tales out of school, if Blogger allowed Trackbacks.

*brrr*

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

the "Chair." Perfectly acceptable, shorter, gender-neutral, and less awkward.

That's as may be, but I'd rather be a Chairwoman than a glorified piece of balsa-wood tailored for bums.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

Those are painful examples. I was once in a discussion about this with a religious person who got completely outraged by the word "father" to refer to God. She went on and on about how some people have been sexually molested by their fathers and for them to hear the word "father" for God was a terrible thing.

Cool.

I don't think I've ever heard a religious person have any problems with saying "Father" for God.

On the contrary, some religious people have problems with anything BUT Father used.

(I don't, but then again, I prefer referring to God as a man linguistically)

What's the alternative translation? Parent? "Our parent, who art in Heaven..."?

I then look forward to the Annapolis tune:

"Anchors Aweigh, my Boys and Girls!"

Sounds like something Big Bird could sing on Sesame Street.

Cheers,
Victoria

Nels said...

For written language I agree with most of what has been said, but in speaking I can't calculate gender composition that quickly and so use "they", "their", and "them" rather than risk mistakes that lead to confusion.

In conversation this rarely produces the same antecedent ambiguity as it would in writing.

XWL said...

Apropos of nothing, I always thought E.B. White was a woman.

jimbo said...

Pastor Jeff -

That TNIV edition sounds like the sort of book Dorothy parker was talking about when she said: "This is not a book to be lightly set aside - it should be thrown with great force."

mcparsons said...

"apples, oranges and bananas".

That always bothered me, putting the period inside the quotation. It always seemed that a period belonged at the end, "period". I understand the reason for the counter-intuitive usage is that when constructing metal type, the period would be a little dangly bit hanging off the end with no solid letter to strengthen the type and therefore more likely to break off. True or not?

Tara said...

Wow, from the way people write here, "one" would really think that all the major newspapers, publishers, and media outlets, or, at the very least, the government, had mandated the use of gender neutral language.

Rather, it happens that a lot of actual individuals prefer gender neutral language and strive to use it and to make their preferences known to people who might care - like people who might make money off of them...

So far, not seeing anything sinister or big brother-y here...

I can't help but think what a very emotion-bound conversation this is. I don't actually feel anything wrong with praying to parent or mother. It's all about what you're used to, isn't it?

Anyway, it's all very well to claim that men and women are equal now and there's no more point to gender neutral language, but if other people disagree and try to use it, then who exactly is pushing their views down other people's throats?

Kirk Parker said...

Those hymn examples are bad, but not nearly as bad as "Onward Christian People". Worst of all were the <unchristian expletive deleted> people who revised the line from "Fairest Lord Jesus":

O Thou of God and Man the son

to read:

O Thou from Heaven to Earth Come down.

Uhhh, is this Jesus or Cybele we're talking about???

Francis W. Porretto said...

The degree of animus this subject can stir up is appalling. It suggests that pronoun usage is a major front in the imagined War Between The Sexes.

I regard correctness of grammar -- including proper numerical coherence of pronoun with back referent -- as very important. I use "he," "his,", and "him" in their generic sense to assure this. When a woman draws an offensive inference from that usage, I simply tell her, "If you want to be offended, that's your privilege, just as it's my privilege to speak as I prefer." I have never yet reaped any misfortune by doing so, though the gender-war feminists gnash their teeth at me.

Speak as you prefer. Speak in the expectation that you'll be understood. And of course, if you don't expect that you'll be understood, save your breath.

Decklin Foster said...

Well, I came in here from the other thread, and missed this discussion, but I feel compelled to point future readers to some of Language Log's greatest hits.

Those who take the adjectives from the table
The blowing of Strunk and White's rules off
Omit stupid grammar teaching
Red Sox win
She's they until you acknowledge her
Don't put up with usage abuse
The blowing of each other up
Who is this exalted parrot?

Needless to say, I agree. The Elements of Style is a horrid little book and I cringed every time I sold a copy back at the college bookstore.

I don't really understand the characterization of singular they as a political-correctness (rather than a linguistic) issue, so I haven't bothered to read the majority of this thread and I won't comment on that aspect of this discussion.

amba said...

Since most firefighters are firemen, and for good reason, you should say, "A good firefighter always takes care of his truck" (even if he's a she.)

When making general statements about humanity, it's a bit of a different story.

If awkwardly inserting "they, their" as a singular, or alternating "he" and "she" as the generic (even for God), or rewriting great poetry to neuter it in every sense of the word, is liberal political correctness (and a crime against language), then defiantly reverting to the use of "he" as the generic has become conservative political correctness.

They all bother me. Insisting on "he" takes me back to the time within my memory when "he" was standard because the male was considered the default or complete human being. The use of "she" as the generic seems incredibly smarmy, insincere and condescending. "They" and "their" as a singular is just deformed. When we're talking about prose more prosaic than great literature, I sometimes actually prefer "he or she" -- and where abbreviation is OK and the words aren't going to be read out loud, I have been known to use "s/he."

This is a case-by-case challenge for writers. There is no longer only one way of saying things, so context, rhythm, and common sense can rule.

amba said...

I love it that "Freeman Hunt," who believes in using the masculine pronoun, is a woman. Her parents named her either within a fashion of gender neutrality, reversal, or ambiguity, or else within a family or cultural tradition that transcended those considerations. I wonder which?

amba said...

Jonathan, LOL!

Maybe the feminine is "Mountee." (I hope no one gets that.)

amba said...

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlepersons . . . (Gentlefolks?)

Derek the Ænglican said...

Concerning God-language and official practice, be thankful y'all haven't been in a mainline Protestant seminary lately. There you would meet one of the more horrific little modern words, "God's-self". First-year students are informed that one does not say (for example) "God revealed himself to the people..." No, the preferred form is: "God revealed God's-self to the people..."

John(classic) said...

I always thought women were so elite and special that they had their own pronoun whereas men were so mundane and commonplace they had to have partial use of a generic pronoun....

(grin, duck and run)

G. T. Karber said...

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes? He holds the record, I know that, for sure.

mollie said...

This is like saying a x-mas tree is pagan and doesn't symbolize x-mas. Of course the argument can be made that it technically isn't religious, but strong associations are what change meanings. Similarly, the argument that he and his is neutral has a valid basis. If you use he, I bet that 9x out of 10, the reader is hearing "man." If you're 30 or under and college educated, if you use "he" as your gender neutral pronoun, you are either unevolved or ridiculously conservative (not referring to your political bent). That doesn't resolve whether or not it is "right" to use he, but writers should not pretend that readers "see" neutral when they use it. They are creating a male visual and that's just reality.

However, the most convincing argument that terms like ``he'' and ``man'' are not truly neutral comes not from abstract arguments but from empirical research:

In 1972, two sociologists at Drake University, Joseph Schneider and Sally Hacker, decided to test the hypothesis that man is generally understood to embrace woman. Some three hundred college students were asked to select from magazines and newspapers a variety of pictures that would appropriately illustrate the different chapters of a sociology textbook being prepared for publication. Half the students were assigned chapter headings like ``Social Man'', ``Industrial Man'', and ``Political Man''. The other half was given different but corresponding headings like ``Society'', ``Industrial Life'', and ``Political Behavior''. Analysis of the pictures selected revealed that in the minds of students of both sexes use of the word man evoked, to a statistically significant degree, images of males only --- filtering out recognition of women's participation in these major areas of life --- whereas the corresponding headings without man evoked images of both males and females. In some instances the differences reached magnitudes of 30 to 40 per cent. The authors concluded, `This is rather convincing evidence that when you use the word man generically, people do tend to think male, and tend not to think female ([Miller et al 1980, pages 19--20,]).

Remember what your goal in writing is: to communicate. So think about what you want to communicate.

shastadaisy said...

Whatever the chauvanistic origin, we girls get the ships--and the cars ("start 'er up!") And I don't mind saying "boy oh boy," so please don't change it to "buoy oh buoy!" And mankind has enough troubles. Leave it in peace.

Dancing Bear said...

Just to add 2 points to a many pointed Star--

1. Forget not the little ones who from cellular division until 7 years or so are receiving 'programming' that (unless dealt with) dictates for a lifetime-- thus gender bias manifest in language is simply 'downloaded' during these vital years, not processed according to the varied tastes and opinions of the adult dialectic we are engaged in here.

2. How many here are unknowingly parroting such 'dictation' and/or are accumulating reinforcement by banding with other product/producers of 'programs' sponsored by the same brands.

Dancing Bear said...

Just to add 2 points to a many pointed Star--

1. Forget not the little ones who from cellular division until 7 years or so are receiving 'programming' that (unless dealt with) dictates for a lifetime-- thus gender bias manifest in language is simply 'downloaded' during these vital years, not processed according to the varied tastes and opinions of the adult dialectic we are engaged in here.

2. How many here are unknowingly parroting such 'dictation' and/or are accumulating reinforcement by banding with other product/producers of 'programs' sponsored by the same brands.