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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How can I teach my students to write decently when the English language has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Academic-Industrial Complex? Our language used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers. But in the 1970s and '80s, arrogant ideologues began recasting English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state. In consequence we have all got used to sentences where puffed-up words like "chairperson" and "humankind" strut and preen, where he-or-she's keep bashing into surrounding phrases like bumper cars and related deformities blossom like blisters; they are all markers of an epoch-making victory of propaganda over common sense.

We have allowed ideologues to pocket a priceless property and walk away with it. Today, as college students and full-fledged young English teachers emerge from the feminist incubator in which they have spent their whole lives, this victory of brainless ideology is on the brink of becoming institutionalized. If we mean to put things right, we can't wait much longer.

Our ability to write and read good, clear English connects us to one another and to our common past. The prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise. Shakespeare's most perfect phrases are miraculously simple and terse. ("Thou art the thing itself." "A plague o' both your houses." "Can one desire too much of a good thing?") The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written "pure simple English." Meanwhile, in everyday prose, a word with useless syllables or a sentence with useless words is a house fancied-up with fake dormers and chimneys. It is ugly and boring and cheap, and impossible to take seriously.

But our problem goes deeper than a few silly words and many tedious sentences. How can I (how can any teacher) get students to take the prime rule seriously when virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite? When students have been ordered since first grade to put "he or she" in spots where "he" would mean exactly the same thing, and "firefighter" where "fireman" 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. The well-aimed torpedo of Feminist English has sunk the whole process of teaching students to write. The small minority of born writers will always get by, inventing their own rules as they go. But we used to expect every educated citizen to write decently--and that goal is out the window.

"He or she" is the proud marshal of this pathetic parade. It has generated a cascading series of problems in which the Establishment, having noticed that Officially Approved gender-neutral sentences sound rotten, has dreamt up alternatives that are even worse. So let's consider "he or she." In some cases the awfulness of a feminist phrase requires several paragraphs to investigate systematically. Such investigations are worth pursuing nonetheless; our language is at stake.

When the style-smashers first announced, decades ago, that the neutral "he" meant "male" and excluded "female," they were lying and knew it. After all, when a critic like Mary Lascelles writes (in her classic 1939 study of Jane Austen) that "no reader can vouch for more than his own experience," one can hardly accuse her of envisioning male readers only. In feminist minds ideology excused the lie, and the goal of interchangeable sexes was a far greater good than decent English. Even today's English professors have heard (I suppose) of Eudora Welty, who wrote in her 1984 memoirs--just as the feminist anti-English campaign was nearing total victory--that every story writer imagines himself inside his characters; "it is his first step, and his last too." Was the author demonstrating her inability to write proper English? Or merely letting us know that there is no such thing as a female writer?

E.B. White was our greatest modern source of the purest, freshest, clearest, most bracing English, straight from a magic spring that bubbled for him alone. With A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, he was one of a triumvirate that made the New Yorker under its great editor Harold Ross a thing of beauty and a joy forever. The Elements of Style, White's revision of a short textbook by his Cornell professor William Strunk, is justly revered as the best thing of its kind. In the third edition (1979), White lays down the law on the he-or-she epidemic that was sweeping the country like a bad flu (or a bad joke).

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.