Would English Be Eleganter Without Feminists?

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 2:15 PM EDT

little_five_points_1458528_l.jpgOver at the Weekly Standard, Yale computer science professor David Gelerntner thinks feminism has no place in the English language:

When students have been ordered since first grade to put "he or she" in spots where "he" would mean exactly the same thing…How can we then tell them, "Make every word, every syllable count!" They may be ignorant but they're not stupid.

He also complains that we're taught to use "'firefighter' where 'fireman' would mean exactly the same thing." I'm willing to concede "waiter" for "waitress," but I simply can't accept that "fireman" is superior to "firefighter." So even though my instincts were telling me that Gelerntner was cloaking sexism in the guise of linguistic purity, I paused to consider whether that "or she" appendage really is dragging us, and the English language, down the wrong path.

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To bolster his argument, Gelerntner quotes the famous stylist E.B. White:

"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. The word was unquestionably biased to begin with (the dominant male), but after hundreds of years it has become seemingly indispensable. It has no pejorative connotations; it is never incorrect."

It's a pretty slick argument, first acknowledging the history of bias and then negating it in a single breath. White might also have pointed out that languages that are much more fastidious than English about gender specificity (like Spanish and French) default to the masculine pronoun. But they're also in the habit of assigning gender to all objects so that gender isn't always about sex, like it is in English. The generic he substituting for everything indefinite in the world still struck me as suspicious. So I decided to dig around in various writing guides.

Going directly to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I found this:

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. Currently, however, many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive. Substituting he or she in its place is the logical thing to do if it works. But it often doesn't work, if only because repetition makes it sound boring or silly.

The Chicago Manual of Style says:

On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers. What is wanted, in short, is a kind of invisible gender neutrality.

And the MLA's A Pocket Style Manual makes this statement:

Sexist language is language that stereotypes or demeans men or women, usually women. Such language arises from stereotypical thinking, from traditional pronoun use, and from words used to refer indefinitely to both sexes.

So the consensus is clear: In most cases careful, thoughtful editing will do the trick.

The MLA sums it up succinctly:

  1. Replace they with he or she (or their with his or her);
  2. make the singular antecedent plural; or
  3. rewrite the sentence.

If you're still opposed, check out some of the strange alternatives in the March/April 2008 issue of Mother Jones, page 23, Gender Enders. I'm pretty sure Gelerntner would find these tricks even more obnoxious.

—Joyce Tang

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