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14 March 2008 @ 05:10 pm
"he" as a gender neutral pronoun  
"The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day."

"Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow his way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose?"

"Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?"

They all sound a bit odd.

Examples from Language Log and gigamonkeys.

The middle example was "her way", but it was from an article by someone called Gelernter arguing against the use of "he or she", saying that "he" means exactly the same thing. As gigamonkeys points out, not all feminists are women, so by Gelernter's own argument, it should be "his way".

I notice another weird bit near the end of Gelernter's article. He talks about the loss of the phrase "great men", saying that alternatives such as "great person" sound silly. For someone who hates the change of plurality when using "they" as a singular gender neutral pronoun, he's not very good at keeping singular and plural straight himself. An alternative to "great men" would be "great people". His example sentence "Wittgenstein was a great man" is fine as it is - we know Wittgenstein was a man. Is Gelernter seriously suggesting "man" is gender neutral in that sentence? Would he have no problem with the sentence "Queen Elizabeth was a great man" or "Wittgenstein and Queen Elizabeth were great men"? Surely "Queen Elizabeth was a great woman" or "Wittgenstein and Queen Elizabeth were great [people]" is better.
There are so many colours in the rainbow.followthebird on March 14th, 2008 08:07 pm (UTC)
I agree.
Austinhighverbalfan on April 5th, 2008 01:21 am (UTC)
It seems odd to me that the author of the piece, with his reverence for writing and clear communication, is so opposed to making the language more precise. Using 'he' as both a gender-neutral and a masculine-specific term only serves to confuse the meaning of the word and confuse the reader. No language is perfect, and English is no exception; it is merely a tool, constantly being shaped and adapted to suit the needs of those using it. Galernter cites EB White: "The living language is like a cowpath; it is the creation of the cows themselves, who, having created it, follow it or depart from it according to their whims or their needs." I agree completely. Galernter claims to agree as well, but then turns around and rejects this natural linguistic flexibility by insisting that we adhere to the outmoded linguistic construct of the neutral 'he.' The historical use of 'he' as a gender-neutral term is outdated and SHOULD be scrapped...especially since 'he' was never truly gender-neutral anyway, as the examples you posted illustrate.

If 'he' can mean 'he or she,' then what is the purpose of using the word 'he' at all, since its meaning is so unclear? As a corollary, imagine that 'white' could also mean 'white or black.' Sentences like 'All chess pieces are white' or 'Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the greatest white men who ever lived' become impossible to interpret correctly. True, 'he or she' constructions can sometimes seem awkward, but at least their meaning is easily understood. And while using 'they' as a singular gender-neutral alternative may grammatically incorrect, it avoids the explicitly male connotation of 'he.' Forcing words to be needlessly inclusive--especially inclusive of their opposites--only serves to weaken the language and make clear communication of ideas even more difficult. Why does he cling to such linguistic imprecision?

The answer, of course, would seem to be his deeply-rooted sexism. The entire article hints at this, but the hysterical and alarmist tone of his final paragraphs confirms it; the fact that replacing 'Great men' with 'Great men and women' never even OCCURS to him reveals his biases rather clearly.
a very caring potatomollydot on April 9th, 2008 03:52 pm (UTC)
Re your last paragraph: It got so blatant at one point that I started wondering if I, and the articles I read about it, had got the wrong end of the stick. Was it perhaps meant to be satire?