In the English language, we have gendered pronouns. Masculine: he, him, his. Feminine: she, her, hers. When discussing unidentified individuals, the traditional approach has been to use masculine pronouns. For example: “He who hesitates is lost.”
Recently, in terms of the development of the English language, there has been a push to change this practice in an attempt to be more inclusive of women. After all, females make up about half of the population and she who hesitates is equally lost. One approach to this problem is the use of the “singular they”. This is particularly common in the possessive. For example: “whoever said that I am spiteful better watch their back.” However, there is a lot of push-back against using the plural pronoun as a neuter singular. For one thing, it sounds queer to many people because it does not make grammatical sense to simply substitute a plural word in place of a singular one. Another strategy is to simply use the feminine pronouns rather than the masculine. This is generally effective, but can seem affected. It seems particularly affected when the context would clearly apply to a man far more often than to a woman. For example: “the perpetrator of a brutal multiple homicide can be held liable for emotional injuries she causes to the families of her victims,” or “one should make sure that she has applied Just For Men™ hair dye evenly throughout her mustache.” (Note that a woman certainly could commit brutal homicides or dye her mustache, but these acts are more likely those of a man.)
I am a bit of a traditionalist. I try to avoid the singular they entirely. I prefer the use of the masculine pronouns for unidentified individuals because it just sounds more natural to me. Of course, I will use the feminine where context clearly makes the individual more likely a woman. For example: “when choosing a brassiere, one should make sure that the elastic does not dig into her skin.” (Again, a man could purchase a bra for his own personal use, but the advice clearly applies more to women.)
The point of this post is not to engage in an argument about the changing role of women in society. I am not writing to claim that it is not important to encourage women to enter academic or professional fields that have traditionally been male dominated. Interest in mathematics, science, engineering, and all sorts of valuable studies should be fostered in all students who show an interest or talent in them, regardless of sex. My purpose in this post is simply to advise that choosing pronouns for the purpose of being inclusive should be secondary to choosing pronouns to make the author sound like he knows how the English language works.
I read a published court decision today that sacrificed clarity and general quality in an apparent attempt to be gender-inclusive. A federal judge, a person whose entire livelihood relies on his ability to clearly explain rules, reasoning, and conclusions, proposed this three-factor test to determine whether an attorney may disclose confidential information to prevent a future crime:
“First, how much information did the attorney possess suggesting that a crime was going to be committed before he disclosed? Relatedly, how much investigation did the attorney conduct to inform herself of the circumstances and resolve any doubts she may have had? Third, how convinced was the attorney that their client was going to commit a crime (for example, did he believe beyond a reasonable doubt?)?” (Emphasis added.)
In three sentences about a single hypothetical attorney whose conduct is being evaluated, the judge used two masculine pronouns, two feminine pronouns, and the singular they. These word choices did not change the meaning of the paragraph, but it did make the whole thing unnecessarily complex. The last sentence is particularly bad. It refers to “their client” and then asks what “he believe[d]”. The judge is asking about what the attorney believed, but it appears that he is asking what the client believed. Clarity has been sacrificed for… what? What real value did the judge add to this paragraph by indiscriminately bouncing from pronoun to pronoun?
Perhaps there are some people who would not have been distracted or confused by the judge’s word choice. Maybe the fact that I don’t like the way he writes says more about me than it does about him. But his job is to write, and he could have conveyed his thoughts more clearly by picking a gender and sticking with it. This paragraph makes his work look sloppy. If his writing is sloppy, people might assume that his reasoning is sloppy as well. And for a judge, that consideration should easily outweigh any desire to make everybody feel included.
Beer of the Week: Genesee Cream Ale – The first time I ever had this beer, I purchased it because it was the cheapest available option. If I recall correctly, before taxes it was less than 50¢ per can. Despite the name, “cream ales” do not contain any dairy products. (Unlike milk stouts, which are brewed with lactose for extra sweetness.) I actually find it to be very palatable. It does have a certain smoothness and nice body for a cheap, mass-produced beer, and at a price that is hard to beat.
Reading for the Week: At a Vacation Exercise in the College, Part Latin, Part English by John Milton – It is a significant understatement to say that Milton knew how to use language well. The excerpt of this address by he made while he was yet a student is a testament to the power of the English language in the right hands. After delivering an oration in Latin, Milton changes to English poetry and announces that it is the English language that is best equipped to attire the deepest and choicest thoughts.
Question for the Week: Do you think that the use of feminine pronouns when talking about unidentified individuals sounds affected? Is that a good enough reason not to do it?
It is a ridiculous position to be in, but I find very often that I have to defend a statement that seems self-evident: war is bad. It is obviously bad for the people who die and for the people who are wounded physically and psychologically. But it is also bad for the people who pay for it with their taxes and for the economies that suffer because capital that could be invested in products that improve quality of life is instead invested in devices that blow things up.
As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “in all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.” The heads of government (and their cronies) are the sole beneficiaries of war.
As a response to my beliefs on this subject, one night I was accused of not “supporting our troops.” I had been drinking heavily and decided that my antagonist was correct; I have not done enough to support the troops. It is easy to forget that although it is politicians, the companies that pay for their campaigns, and career military men who are the cause and driving force of war, it is honest young men and women who suffer and die.
Then and there, I made a commitment to do something to support the troops: I wrote to my congressmen and senators, insisting that they introduce or support legislation that would bring home our troops stationed abroad. Of course, I have little faith in the efficacy of writing letters to politicians, but it was the best way I could think of to support the troops. If we really care about these young men and women (which I do), then the loving and compassionate thing to do is to bring them home, take the guns out of their hands, and pour them a nice, cold beer.
Beer of the Week: Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale – It surprised me when I learned that Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War. They certainly had their priorities straight by choosing beers over bombs. Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale is an Irish nitrogen widget beer. As I stated in the review of Guinness Draught, I am not sure that I understand how it works. Notwithstanding, the results are the same in this beer. The head is creamy, lasts forever and pours with some very attractive cascading. The aroma is of sweet roasted malts and the flavor is no different. The ruby brown beer is sweet and smooth and quite enjoyable.
Reading of the week: On Patriotism by Leo Tolstoy – “Patriotism,” writes Tolstoy, “[is] the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience… Patriotism is slavery.” For Tolstoy, patriotism is not a love of one’s land and people, but a “slavish enthralment to those in power.”
Question of the week: Is there a valid and meaningful distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism”?