Wednesday, August 29, 2012



Now that that women are viewed, in the West anyway, as fully fledged – at the very least – members of the human race, linguistic conventions are clearly outdated. This, by the way, is not unique to English. Every known language deprecates and subsumes women. (See Robin Lakoff, Language and Women's Place, probably not available anywhere.) In fact, English, being one of the few genderless languages, is rather less guilty of perpetuating patriarchal hetero-normativity than the rest.

For this blog's mother tongue, the most egregious offense, aside from the obvious affronts presented by "history" and "women", is the dual-purposing of masculine pronouns, as they have always been used to refer to both men and people. Consequently, writers have been torturing both themselves and readers in circumlocutions tendentious, ungrammatical, or, frequently, both.

In a recent newspaper article about how GPS is changing, well, everything, one sentence referring to flying used "pilot ... she". As a practical matter, of course there are women pilots. Just not very many; statistically, the writer should have deferred to the masculine, and might well have done, except for the near-certainty of style sheets demanding a certain ratio of female pronouns.

Even James Taranto, who is the gold standard for direct, telegraphic, and economical writing, falls into this trap. In today's Best of the Web, regarding the GOP convention, he had this to say about Ann Romney's speech:
Which reminds us of something we found mildly vexing about last night's big speeches, namely the feminist pandering. Gov. Christie did it by using poor grammar: "Mitt Romney," he declared, "will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world's greatest health care system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor."

In English, masculine pronouns double as neutral ones. "An American citizen and his doctor" would have been the correct way of referring to a generic patient who could be of either sex. Make it ". . . her or his doctor" and you say the same thing, albeit with two excess words. But if you take Christie's words literally, ObamaCare is a problem only inasmuch as it harms women. The death panels can have at the guys.
I happily grant that my criticizing Mr. Taranto on his writing is scarcely less hubristic than diagnosing shortcomings in Ted William's swing. Nonetheless, he has this wrong, as do all the other scribblers agonizing over the repression inherent in the language.

I contend you can always, or close as darnnit, recast any sentence to avoid grinding women under the heel of grammatical repression. Hint: if the subject is inherently collective, it is also inherently plural.

Try this instead: "... putting those bureaucrats between American citizens and their doctors." Or, better yet, since, with regard to healthcare, companion animals are not yet the beneficiaries of government largesse, how about "... Americans and their doctors."

Try it, works every time.

Besides it will forestall, perhaps indefinitely, the imposition of s/he.

Oh, while I'm on a roll, we are beset by the clanking of gender neutrality right where it is least necessary. To wit, every article on "parenting" is written by women, about women. So, how about leaving us guys out of that cat-fight? "Mothering" is a perfectly good word.


No, wait ...

[rant back on]

The progenitors of "You've got mail" and "America's got talent" to name just two examples, should be rewarded with a sound whack upside the head with "Elements of Style".

No, you feckless, language trashing morons. "You have mail". "America has talent".

Yes, the former is no longer any more prominent in the lexicon than AOL, which is now much more closely associated with "Who?". But they are to blame for the spread of that particular grrrrammatical abomination.

As for the latter, a more thoroughly self-refuting statement would be difficult to find, even given time and alcohol.



Blogger Bret said...

In English, usage is king and therefore influencing the language by using it the way you want it to be used is paramount. On the other hand, if you've "got" a different way of using English and it catches on, it will be considered correct some day.

August 30, 2012 3:32 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Yes, I am shouting at the wind.

But how anyone ever thought "you've got" and its evil siblings anything other than linguistic ugliness is to me an abiding mystery.

August 31, 2012 5:12 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home