Re" "he" and "he or she"/ Congress becomes gender-neutral

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Tue Jan 13 17:54:40 UTC 2009

What's most interesting in the shift away from the generic masculine
is that he or she has become the new prescriptive formula, drilled
into schoolchildren by their teachers with no real mention of gender
inclusiveness -- the "essentialist" political goal of gender
neutrality didn't really work after all (look what's happened to Ms.,
which became the new Miss).  Instead, as we might expect in schools,
we've just moved from one rule to another, with the focus still on
correctness rather than social change. Remember, too, that the epicene
pronoun (at least congress has spared us that) was first proposed in
the 19th c. to correct a grammatical problem: generic he may agree in
number, but it doesn't meet the gender requirement for pronoun

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

read the Web of Language:

On Jan 10, 2009, at 11:05 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re" "he" and "he or she"/ Congress becomes gender-
> neutral
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> I sent the following a month ago.  Just for the record, here it is -
> not
> "again," I hope, but if so, please pardon. I couldn't find it in
> either my
> inbix or the ADS-L archives:
> ***
> The problem with such tendentious arguments is that whatever ancient
> prescriptivists may have believed, hoped, or intended about the
> workings of
> English, which they sometimes imagined as reflecting Scripture,
> people have
> been using "he" for centuries to refer to both sexes in certain
> general,
> often formal, contexts.
> Those who subscribe to the idea that generic "he" is sexist must also
> subscribe to the doctrine of essentialism, namely that a word can
> have just
> one correct meaning for all time, or else the etymological fallacy,
> that a
> word's etymology is its destiny.
> Every woman writer in English from Aphra Behn through Phyllis
> Wheatley, Mary
> Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters,  Christina
> Rosetti, Emily
> Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, Edith Wharton, Carson McCullers, etc.,
> used
> generic "he," (and "man") evidently without expectation that she
> would be
> misunderstood or a belief that she was aiding in the subjugation of
> women.
> My (mostly women) teachers too  - like just about everyone else's
> before the
> early '70s -taught correctly that "he" had (not "must have" but
> "does have")
> a generic use, especially in formal contexts, which most of us
> already knew
> unconsciously.  We were warned not to use "they," which we did very
> frequently, because "they" was "plural."  That reasoning too was
> fallacious,
> of course, though in a harmless way. It had no political
> underpinnings.
> Sexist beliefs and actions in the English-speaking world owe little or
> nothing to the generic use of "he," and students have been poorly
> served
> by the insistence that it is incorrect or, worse, wicked.  The primary
> result of this fantasy is that older male authors, who do use "he"
> generically, must now be explicitly absolved of charges of intentional
> excluding or dismissing women. Older female authors must be absolved
> from
> the charge of naive complicity.
> There's little enough basis either for the notion that generic "he"
> is akin
> to overt epithets like the "N-word." The perception that the N-word is
> depreciatory, insulting, and racist (and this is notoriously not
> true in
> certain social contexts) grew from a universal awareness among African
> Americans of the extraordinarily high correlation of its use (esp. by
> whites) with genuinely injurious attitudes and sometimes violent and
> lethal
> actions. Conscious and programmatic rejection of generic "he," on
> the other
> hand, originally reflected merely the demand of a certain intellectual
> class. No one, as far as I know, has ever shown that habitual use of
> generic
> "he" correlates significantly with sexist attitudes.
> At this point, why should anyone give a $^!# ? Because essentialist
> linguistics, with the etymological fallacy thrown in, is bad
> linguistics.
> Generic "he" (not to mention generic "man") is undoubtedly doomed,
> which
> doesn't much bother me (except for the stylistic difficulties its
> loss can
> create). What bothers me is the rarely interrogated tendentious
> reasoning
> that doomed it, or that triumphally hastened its doom, in the first
> place.
> JL
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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