LANGUAGE - A Nurturing Potential series


If a woman is swept off a ship into the water, the cry is `Man overboard!' If she is killed by a hit-and-run driver, the charge is `manslaughter.' If she is injured on the job, the coverage is `workmen's compensation.' But if she arrives at a threshold marked `Men Only,' she knows the admonition is not intended to bar animals or plants or inanimate objects. It is meant for her."(1)

"I give up.  What are you trying to tell me?"

[Illustration by Yaron Livay from Peace of Mind is  Piece of Cake, Crown Books, 1998]



Language tends to reflect and embody social influences, and possibly the most profound changes to have occurred to the English language in the past 60 years have been concerned with political correctness,  in particular  where it relates to gender. 


Consider the impact of increased sensitivity to  the pronoun "he," used to refer to both males and females.  Traditionally the pronouns he, him, and his have been used as generic or gender-neutral singular pronouns, as in A novelist should write about what he knows best and No one seems to take any pride in his work anymore.

Since the early 20th century, however, this usage has come under increasing criticism for reflecting and perpetuating gender stereotyping.  .Defenders of the traditional usage have argued that the masculine pronouns he, his, and him can be used generically to refer to men and women. This analysis of the generic use of he is linguistically doubtful. If he were truly a gender-neutral form, we would expect that it could be used to refer to the members of any group containing both men and women. But in fact the English masculine form is an odd choice when it refers to a female member of such a group. 

There is something plainly disconcerting about sentences such as Each of the students was praised for his achievement in the examinations, when applied to a classroom of both male and female students. Thus he is not really a gender-neutral pronoun; rather, it refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group.  The only truly gender-neutral pronoun is it.  But how would we react to the statement: Each of the students was praised for its achievements . . .?  We can have no quarrel with the statement Each animal behaved in its customary manner; but would take exception to Each person behaved in its customary manner.  Yet what is a person but a human animal?

Ever since political correctness impinged upon public awareness, speakers and writers became more inclined to find ways of avoiding the accusation of gender-bias.  Various strategies were adopted to replace the generic he/him/his.  One such device is to change to the plural, using they, their or them in place of he/his/him. This may satisfy the politician, but is unlikely to appeal to the grammarian.  Another  solution is to use compound and coordinate forms such as he/she or he or she. But this can be cumbersome in sustained use.

 In some cases, the generic pronoun can simply be dropped or changed to an article with no change in meaning. The sentence Every student handed in his assignment could simply be expressed as Every student handed in an assignment.  But even more simply, and undoubtedly more acceptable, is to change the entire phrase from the singular to the plural.  Thus All the students handed in their assignments fulfils the dual requirements of complete and grammatical comprehensibility and political correctness.

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Here are some of the proposed variations on "he, him, his" that have been introduced during the past 150 years.  [Source: American Heritage Dictionary].  

Pre-1850: ne, nis, nim.  1850: hiser; 1858: en.   1864: thon, thons; hi, hes, hem; le, lis, lim; hiser, himer, ip, ips.   1888: ir, iro, im.   1890: e, es. em.   1912: ha, hez, hem; hesh, hizzer, himmer.   1935: himorher.   1938: se, sim, sis.   1945: hse.   1970: she, heris, herim.   co, cos.   ve, vis, ver.   1972: tey, term, tem.   shis, shim, shims, shimself.   ze, zim, zees, zeeself.   per, pers.   1973: na, nan, naself.  s/he.   him/er.   his-or-her.   1974: en, es, ar.   hisorher.   herorhis.   1975: ey, eir, em.   1977: e, ris, rim.  em, ems.   1978: ae.   hir.   1979: et, ets, etself.   shey, sheir, sheirs.   1980: it.   1981: heshe, hes, hem.   1984: hann.   1985: herm.  Post 1985: har.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, these artificial epicene pronouns have been largely ignored by the general English-speaking public, and the project to supplement the English pronoun system has proved to be an ongoing exercise in futility.  Epicene pronouns have enjoyed some success in certain forms of writing, especially science fiction.  Some internet discussion groups also make a habit of using these pronouns.

it would seem that we will have to persevere with traditional grammatical precision at the expense of political correctness, or discard grammar in favour of a gender agenda.  The most likely such forms that will remain in use will no doubt be the use of the plural they, them and their regardless of number or gender, or the unwieldy s/he and his/her, and him or her.  Additionally the use of the pronoun one may be a useful  avoidance strategy.  

Our plea would be to take the trouble to seek out and use such avoidance tactics as rephrasing one's writing in order legitimately to use plural pronouns.

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Some comments


Here are some interesting and amusing comments on the subject of political correctness and gender issues:


First from Doris Lessing [2]

Does Political Correctness have a good side? Yes, it does, for it makes us re-examine attitudes, and that is always useful. The trouble is that, with all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe, the tail begins to wag the dog. For every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to examine our assumptions, there are 20 rabble-rousers whose real motive is desire for power over others, no less rabble-rousers because they see themselves as anti-racists or feminists or whatever.


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Secondly from Golda Meier [3]


A story - which as far as I know, is all it was - once went the rounds of Israel to the effect that Ben-Gurion described me as the `only man' in his cabinet. What amused me about it was that obviously he (or whoever invented the story) thought that this was the greatest possible compliment that could be paid to a woman. I very much doubt that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he was the only woman in the government


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One of the strangest stories of all is that of a woman who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in the late seventies:

The scroll that geneticist Vivian Davidson received from the Academy had her name engraved on it, and then went on to announce that Vivian Davidson was being honoured for `his' accomplishments, and that `he' was now entitled, and `he' could, and `he' should, etc.  She was so amazed at all the `he's' that she sent a letter to the Academy inquiring whether the source of the problem might be that the engraver was British and had taken Vivian for a man's name, or was it perhaps that the printing process was lagging behind the process of election of women to the Academy. The letter she received back from the Academy secretary (a man) was an angry one informing her that she was the first person ever to complain, the scroll was an honour, its plate had been struck in 1868 [sic] by Abraham Lincoln, and it had a historic value the Academy was not about to tamper with.

At the next Academy meeting in Washington, Vivian raised the matter of the scroll's wording with some of the other women scientists. Each one said she had never noticed the use of `he' instead of `she' on the scroll. `That's probably true,' Vivian said sadly. `They're so grateful to be allowed into the club, they wouldn't dream of making waves. In all likelihood they haven't noticed'  [4]

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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. [5]


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(1)  Alma Graham, How to Make Trouble: The Making of a Nonsexist Dictionary, Ms., December 1973, p. 16.

[2]   Doris Lessing in a talk delivered at a Rutgers University conference in Newark New Jersey in 1992 on intellectuals and social change in Eastern Europe.

[3]   Meir, Golda. My Life, New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1976, page 108.

[4Vivian Gornick, Women in Science: 100 Journeys into the Territory. New York: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1990. Short, anecdotal profiles of over a hundred female scientists, mostly from an earlier generation.

[5 Miller, Casey and Kate Swift, Words and Women. New York: Doubleday, Anchor Press, 1977.