The Magazine

Feminism and the English Language

Can the damage to our mother tongue be undone?

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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(Warning: White died in 1985; a later edition of Elements published after his death is a disgrace to his memory.) In his 1984 White biography, Scott Elledge tells a remarkable story about "he or she":

The New Yorker rejected [in 1971] a parable White had written about the campaign of feminists to abolish the use of the pronoun his to mean "his or her." He told Roger Angell [his wife's son by a previous marriage] that he was "surprised, but not downhearted, that the piece got sunk. .  .  . To me, any woman's (or man's) attempt to remove the gender from the language is both funny and futile."

For the New Yorker to have rejected a piece by White, its darling and its hero, the man who did more than anyone but Ross himself to make the magazine the runaway, roaring success it became, and (by the way) a thorough-going liberal, was a sure sign that feminism had already got America in a chokehold.

The fixed idea forced by language rapists upon a whole generation of students, that "he" can refer only to a male, is (in short) wrong. It is applied with nonsensical inconsistency, too. The same feminist warriors who would never write "he" where "he or she" will do would also never write "the author or authoress" where "the author" will do. They hate such words as actress and waitress; in these cases they insist that the masculine form be used for men and women. You would never find my feminist colleagues writing a phrase such as, "When an Anglican priest or priestess mounts the pulpit .  .  . " You will find them writing, "When an Anglican priest mounts the pulpit, he or she is about to address the congregation." Logic has never been a strong suit among the commissar-intellectuals who have bossed American culture since the 1970s. True, "he" sounds explicitly masculine in a way "priest" doesn't, to those who are just learning the language. Children also find it odd that "enough" should be spelled that way, that New York should be at the same latitude as Spain, that 7 squared is 49, and so on. Education was invented to set people straight on all these fine points.

He-or-she'ing added so much ugly dead weight to the language that even the Establishment couldn't help noticing. So feminist authorities went back to the drawing board. Unsatisfied with having rammed their 80-ton 16-wheeler into the nimble sports-car of English style, they proceeded to shoot the legs out from under grammar--which collapsed in a heap after agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional. "When an Anglican priest mounts the pulpit, they are about to address the congregation." How many of today's high school English teachers would mark this sentence wrong, or even "awkward"? (Show of hands? Not one?) Yet such sentences skreak like fingernails on a blackboard.

Slashes are just as bad. He/she is about to address the congregation" is unacceptable because it's not clear how to pronounce it: "he she," "he or she," "he slash she"? The unclarity is a nuisance, and each possibility sounds awful. Writing English is like writing music: One lays down the footprints of sounds that are recreated in each reader's mind. To be deaf to English is like being deaf to birdsong or laughter or rustling trees or babbling brooks--only worse, because English is the communal, emotional, and intellectual net that holds this nation together, if anything can. Occasionally one sees "s/he," which shows not indifference but outright contempt for the language and the reader.

And it gets worse. At the bottom of this junkpile is a maneuver that seems to be growing in popularity, at least among college students: writing "she" instead of neutral "he," or interchanging "he" and "she" at random. This grotesque outcome follows naturally from the primordial lie. If you make students believe that "he" can refer only to a male, then writers who use "he" in sentences referring to men and women are actually discussing males only and excluding females--and might just as well use "she" and exclude males, leaving the reader to sort things out for himself. The she-sentences that result tend to slam on a reader's brakes and send him smash-and-spinning into the roadside underbrush, cursing under his breath. (I still remember the first time I encountered such a sentence, in an early-1980s book by a noted historian about a Jesuit in Asia.)

Here is the problem with the dreaded she-sentence. Ideologues can lie themselves blue in the face without changing the fact that, to those who know modern English as it existed until the cultural revolution and still does exist in many quarters, the neutral he "has lost all suggestion of maleness." But there is no such thing as a neutral "she"; even feminists don't claim there is.