It has been said that cross-examination is the attorney’s opportunity to testify. That is because on cross-examination, lawyers are allowed to ask leading questions. So the lawyer shapes the testimony, and the witness is simply asked to confirm it. The witness doesn’t have a chance to explain himself or expand on his answers; he is simply expected to say “yes” or “no” on cue. And, as any Socratic interlocutor knows–or quickly learns–giving a series of yeses and noes can often lead to an indefensible position. On redirect examination, the other attorney may be able to get out any explanations or expansions needed to rehabilitate the witness, but it may be too late.
Once one recognizes the power that the questioner has, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe becomes infuriating. The titular fowl answers gives the same one-word answer to every single question. The narrator recognizes almost immediately that the word “nevermore” is the raven’s “only stock and store.” And yet, the narrator still frames every single question to the raven in a way that is guaranteed to disappoint him! Instead of asking questions that call for negative answers, he continually seeks positive answers.
Here are a few places he could have greatly improved his interview with the raven:
Q: [Will I ever] forget the lost Lenore[?]
Q: Will I continue to be tormented by the loss of Lenore?
Q: Shall [my soul] clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore[?]
Q: Will I remain separated from Lenore?
See? Once the narrator knows the answer that is coming, all he has to do is arrange the question to suit that answer. Instead, things get worse and worse as he keeps asking the wrong questions. And when it is time to rid himself of the bird, he makes the same mistake.
Q: Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!
Q: Do you plan on staying here long?
It’s almost like the narrator didn’t really want to forget Lenore and be rid of the avian manifestation of his grief.
Beer of the week: Sorachi Ace – This farmhouse ale from The Brooklyn Brewery is brewed with the somewhat unusual Japanese hybrid hops variety of the same name. The beer is quite light in color and slightly hazy, with a foamy white head that dissipates quickly. The aroma is yeasty and lemony. The beer is crisp and bright, and finishes with a bit of spice and a lingering tartness that hangs in the back of the throat.
Reading of the week: Apology by Plato – Expected The Raven, didn’t you? Well that poem has already been used as a weekly reading, so although it is certainly worth rereading (which can be done here,) I picked Socrates’s cross-examination of Meletus for this week. Nearly two and a half millennia later, this portion of the Apology remains a masterclass in cross-examination.
Question for the week: In what contexts do you carefully frame questions to your advantage?
This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns
One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.
The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.
In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)
In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.
This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:
“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”
Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:
“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”
And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:
“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”
Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.
Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.
Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.
Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?
In his Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), the great Persian poet Ferdowsi starts the tragedy of the mighty paladin Rustem and his son Sohráb with a warning against reveling in youth:
“O ye, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.”
This sentiment is reminiscent of several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It seems that Shakespeare often went on about the end of youth and the ravages of time. Sonnet #12 comes to mind, where Shakespeare writes:
“Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;”
Although it is important to confront our mortality it is equally important to carry on with the business of living. Ferdowsi says “Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours.” But can that be serious advice? Is joy ever truly useless? And if joy is occasionally useless, isn’t youth the most appropriate time for such useless joy? It seems likely that “tears of sorrow” and “sad reflection” are much more useless than joy, especially if we are quickly returning to “worthless dust.” There is time enough for sadness when we are dying or dead; joy in our youth ought to be encouraged.
Beer of the week: Berghoff Sir Dunkle – This is a Munich-style dark lager that pours a deep red-brown. The aroma is of dark, ripe fruit. The flavor is mostly dark bread, with a surprisingly full body for a lager. Overall, a very good beer.
Reading of the week: Shah Nameh by Ferdowsi – At the end of Sonnet #12 Shakespeare suggests procreation as a remedy against mortality. But for Ferdowsi, even procreation is futile in the grand scheme. Of course, that might have something to do with the subject matter of the story he is telling. This reading is the beginning of a a tragic tale in which a man unwittingly kills his own son.
Question of the week: How can one strike the proper balance between joy and sad reflection?
Identify the correct statement:
A. Tomatoes are fruits.
B. Tomatoes are vegetables.
C. Tomatoes are berries.
D. All of the above.
The key to this question is the key to most questions: first agree on definitions. If the terms are not adequately defined, then there is no real hope of reaching a consensus on the right answer.
So what is a fruit? In the botanical sense, a fruit is the structure that bears the seeds of a flowering plant. In the culinary sense, a fruit is a sweet plant part. Culinary fruits are usually botanical fruits, but it is not always true that botanical fruits are culinary fruits. For example, apples, cucumbers, acorns, and pumpkins contain the seeds of their respective plants, and are therefore botanical fruits. But of those, only apples are usually considered to be culinary fruits because they are sweet and fleshy. Likewise, tomatoes have seeds, so they are botanical fruits. However, they are not considered culinary fruits because they are generally not prepared the way that sweet fruits are. So answer A. is correct, so long as the broader definition is used.
What is a vegetable? Again, there are broader and narrower definitions. A vegetable may be any edible part of a plant. Or it may be a culinary vegetable: leaves, stems, roots, or some of the less sweet botanical fruits. Nuts, for example, clearly fit into the first definition, but may not fit into the second. The same can be said of grains. So tomatoes are definitely vegetables under the broader definition, and also under the culinary definition.
What is a berry? You’ve guessed it, there are multiple definitions. The colloquial definition is a small, fleshy fruit that is usually sweet. This includes strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, and cherries. But none of those fruits fit within the botanical definition of a berry. Botanically speaking, berries are fleshy fruits that do not have stones that are produced from the single ovary of a single flower. So blueberries, elderberries and grapes are botanical fruits. But so are pumpkins, bananas and, indeed, tomatoes. So although they are not berries in the common sense of the word, C. is a correct answer if the question is about the botanical definition.
Ultimately, the question is more “what definitions are being used?” than “what is a tomato?” People often argue at length about things that are no less trivial than the categorization of tomatoes. And frequently the source of their disagreements are at the definitional level. One of the great flaws of language is that no matter how many words we have, they are all but poor representations of ideas. Try to focus on agreeing on definitions before jumping into an argument where you are likely to be talking right past each other.
Beer of the week: Shiner Ruby Redbird – Grapefruit is considered a “modified berry” because, unlike most berries, it has a tough skin and internal segments. Ginger is either a spice or a vegetable, depending on what definition is used. And both are ingredients in this beer. Ruby Redbird was originally a summer seasonal. However, it is now available year-round. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. Ginger dominates the smell and the aftertaste. There is a hint of citrus at first, but the ginger is so strong that everything else is really secondary. That’s not a bad thing, mind. As long as you are ok with ginger flavored beer, this is a very tasty and refreshing option.
Reading of the week: How I Edited an Agricultural Paper by Mark Twain – Like the narrator of this great short story, I don’t really know much about agriculture. (But at least I know that turnips don’t grow on trees.) This story is very funny, but it also ends with a great critique of newspaper editors that is equally applicable in a digital age where everybody, no matter how ill-informed, can spread his opinion to the masses.
Question of the week: Is baseball a sport? Or, more accurately, is there any reasonable definition of “sport” that excludes baseball?
My grandmother felt a very real connection to her Pennsylvania-Dutch roots. Her great-great-etc.-grandfather came to these shores from the old world, and his son fought in the American Revolution. My grandmother was born, educated, married, and died in Pennsylvania. That’s not to say that she wasn’t worldly. She left her part of the state to attend Gettysburg College, one of the two Lutheran colleges in the state that admitted women. She travelled to India, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and more. But she stayed firmly connected to her ethnic roots in a way that I haven’t.
Nikola Tesla is another example of somebody strongly attached to his own cultural identity, even when physically separated from it. Tesla was a Serbian, but he was born and raised in what is now Croatia. His education took him to Vienna and to Prague, and his work took him to France and the United States. In fact, it doesn’t appear that he spent much (or any) time at all in Serbia proper. Still, his entire life, Tesla regarded himself as a Serbian. He founded the Serbian Culture Club at his university in Austria, he memorized and translated Serbian poetry, and is now regarded as a national hero in Serbia (and namesake of the largest airport in the country.) So why is his Serbian connection so strong despite never living in Serbia?
For one thing, Tesla strongly believed in a unified Balkan Peninsula. “The fact is,” he wrote, “that all Yugoslavs-Serbians, Slavonians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Dalmations, Montenagrins, Croatians and Slovenes – are of the same race, speak the same language and have common national ideals and traditions.” (It seems that the Serbo-Croatian language has fractured along political boundaries, but Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin remain mutually intelligible.) This belief in a shared identity helps elucidate how somebody born in Croatia would see no incongruity in asserting his own Serbian-ness.
Another determining factor in Tesla’s connection to his Serbian identity was his education. His mother memorized and recited Serbian epic poetry. And in that poetry, he found the same sort of grand feats and noble traits that draw people to the ancient and proud identities of Sparta or Rome. “For in Milosh [Obilich, hero of the Battle of Kosovo,] we see both Leonidas and Mucius, and, more than this, a martyr, for he does not die an easy death on the battle-field like the Greek, but pays for his daring deed with a death of fearful torture. It is not astonishing that the poetry of a nation capable of producing such heroes should be pervaded with a spirit of nobility and chivalry.” It is the poetry, with all of the history and ideality it contains, that kept Tesla a Serbian, first and foremost. In many ways, that is far more important than geography or blood.
Beer of the week: Spirit Tesla – This week’s beer, named for the man himself, is intertwined with these questions of identity and national pride. The idea to name this beer after Tesla apparently came from an American importer keen to capitalize on the popularity of the inventor. (In some circles, Tesla is something of an obsession.) In Serbia, the same beer is sold under the brewery’s trade name, Valjevsko. Whatever it is called, this is a decent Euro lager. There is not much head to speak of, and it is perhaps a bit on the sweet side, but I like that it is a solid malty offering. Unlike so many cheep lagers, this one has some flavor.
Reading of the week: Zmai Iovan Iovanovich – The Chief Servian Poet of To-Day by Nikola Tesla – The love of Serbian poetry that Tesla inherited from his mother stayed with him his whole life. In fact, he assisted in translating a fair bit into English.
Question of the week – Do you associate more with where you are from or where your ancestors are from? And even if those are the same, do you consider yourself primarily of your town, region, nation, or continent?
Since this blog is partially devoted to writing beer reviews, the following statement may seem hypocritical: I have very little interest in reading reviews. I have no great love for critics. The very first post on this blog acknowledges that criticism is an art form unto itself, but I don’t have a whole lot of interest in reading what somebody else thinks of a movie or book. I will occasionally let a metacritic score dissuade me from watching a film. I do read beer reviews from time to time, mostly to help me identify subtle flavors that I can’t quite put my finger on. But when choosing a book, I usually rely on personal suggestions or the status of the book as a “classic”.
Recently, however, I read a couple pieces of criticism that are classics in their own right, so I am tempted to give them particular weight. The first is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay A Defence of Poetry and the second is Ben Jonson’s On Bacon. What links these writings is the fact that each heaps praises on Francis Bacon as not only a great thinker, but as a great writer.
Shelley writes of Bacon: “His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy.” In so many words, Bacon’s writing and philosophy are both mind-blowingly good.
Jonson writes that “No man ever spake more neatly, more presly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered.” Bacon chose every word perfectly to convey his grand and significant ideas; “His hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss.”
I have never seen Bacon as a poet, although I have read a fair bit of his writing. In fact, two of his essays have been readings on this blog. Perhaps I was so engrossed in Bacon’s ideas that I paid little attention to his writing style. That two of the most influential English poets of all time regard Bacon as a master of the language makes me think that I really should revisit his writing.
Beer of the week: Heady Topper Double IPA – Speaking of rave reviews, Heady Topper may be the highest rated beer in the world. And it’s reputation is nearly matched by its rarity. The Alchemist Brewing Company has limited distribution to a small area around the brewery in Vermont, so this beer is impossible to get unless you visit that area, buy illegally second-hand, or have a Vermonter friend. (Thanks, Ben!) Additionally, it is worth noting that the can has “DRINK FROM THE CAN!” printed across the top. The brewers have determined that this beer is best when consumed straight from the can because the essential hops oils do not have a chance to dissipate. I defer to their expertise on the subject and eschew glassware.
The smell is restricted by the can, but notes of orange and plenty of herby hops come through the opening. The hops do not hit the tongue right away, but their flavor unfolds slowly and leaves a delicious tingle on the tongue. Whether this (or any) beer can possibly live up to all the hype surrounding Heady Topper, this beer certainly is great.
Reading of the week: On Bacon by Ben Jonson – Jonson’s appraisal of Bacon as “the acme of our language” is perhaps more interesting than Shelley’s since Jonson and Bacon were contemporary. In fact, they were more than that; they were friends. Johnson helped Bacon with translations and Bacon supposedly called Jonson “my man, John.”
Question of the week: I acknowledge that I am often at fault for making appeals to authority. But is there not reason to think that most works that have survived through the ages have done so (at least in part) because of their quality?
The Confederate battle flag was ceremoniously lowered from the South Carolina Capitol this morning. The democratic process worked as well as it ever does. A duly elected legislature voted to remove the banner from the government-owned building. Nothing to it.
But the debate over flying the flag on state property has spilled into questions about whether businesses should be allowed to sell the Confederate battle flag or whether private citizens should be able to fly the flag on their own property.
Recently, Scott Hancock, an associate professor at Gettysburg College proffered a novel solution to the “problem” of people flying the Confederate flag in their own yard. If he had his way, the town government would pass an ordinance defining what the flag stands for. He does not propose any specific wording for this ordinance, but his suggestion would apparently be along the lines of: “It is hereby ordered that the Confederate battle flag shall be understood to represent treason, racism, and chattel slavery, and that the flying of said flag shall be seen as an endorsement of same.”
Before going into why Professor Hancock’s proposal is a bad one, I would like to acknowledge a few important points that he is correct about. First, he acknowledges that freedom of speech (like all of the rights that are primary to the American way of life) is a negative right. This means that the power of speech is not something that the government gives to its citizens, but something which it cannot take away. He also acknowledges that the most reasonable and effective method of dealing with the objectionable speech of others is to simply ignore it. Beyond these points, however, Professor Hancock seems to be profoundly misguided.
The most obvious mistake that the professor makes is the determination that a simple majority of people are capable of determining what a word or symbol “means” to everybody. Perhaps in the realm of the purely utilitarian, such is the case. A simple majority could, by democratic vote, determine that a red octagon posted at an intersection means “cars approaching this intersection must stop and yield right-of-way.” But private speech cannot be so restricted. If the legislature passed an ordinance that defined the word “swag” as only “such plunder as is carried off by pirates”, that would have no effect on how frat boys and rappers use the word or what they mean when they say it.
When Professor Hancock says that the Confederate flag does not represent bravery in battle, camaraderie among brothers-at-arms, or an independent spirit, what he is really saying is that the flag does not mean that to him. To everybody who flies the flag with the intention of conveying the aforementioned virtues, the flag absolutely does represent them. And just because one person does not agree with that interpretation of a symbol does not mean that he can legislate what the symbol means for everybody, even if he has a majority on his side.
To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a symbol’s meaning is in its use. If person A flies the Confederate flag to show his pride in the independent spirit of the South or to express his belief that states’ rights are primary to national sovereignty, that is what the flag stands for. If person B views the flag and does not (or chooses not to) understand A’s meaning, then there has simply been a breakdown in the language game. B cannot declare unilaterally that A was the cause of the miscommunication and create new rules to suit his own understanding.
Beer of the week: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA – This strong, clear IPA is quite good. It is also very, very hoppy. In fact, the first sip was so hoppy that I was a bit overwhelmed by the strong aftertaste. As I kept drinking, however, I found that the beer actually has a strong malt backbone under all of that hops. Once I got over the initial bitterness I found that this beer is actually quite well balanced.
Reading for the week: Philosophical Inquiries by Ludwig Wittgenstein, §40-47 – This reading shows how we have to be careful in attempting to define the “meaning” of words or symbols. If I say “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ a certain piece of fabric, red with a starry blue cross,” I am saying something quite different from “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ slavery, oppression, freedom, or history.” Even the meaning of the word meaning is not unequivocal!
Question for the week: Rather than an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as something bad, why not pass an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as the official flag of racial harmony? Wouldn’t that be likely to have a more positive result?
I am getting married tomorrow. Naturally, I have much to think about and do that must take precedence over blogging about beer. So this will just be a short reflection on love and understanding.
It is almost cliche to say that men and women speak different languages. But it has been widely and rightly observed that cliches and stereotypes could never have become stock ideas if there were not at least some truth behind them. (Even the tired gag of somebody slipping on a banana peel is based in reality; there have been numerous slip-and-fall lawsuits related to banana peels.) So I know to expect that in married life, we will occasionally run up against a language barrier. I will not always understand her and she will not always understand me. But with patience, we may let love be our translator and eventually convey more in a look or a touch than could be expounded in volumes. And though we may never come to understand each other in every instance, each miscommunication and misunderstanding creates an opportunity for reconciliation and reconnection.
Our constant search for meaning and understanding in this world is part of what draws people together, and by seeking to understand others we may come to know ourselves better than we could in isolation. I happily look forward to communicating with, understanding, and loving my new wife in deeper, more profound ways as we continue our adventures together.
Beer of the week: Long Trail Ale – This is one of the beers that we have selected for the reception. This German-style brown ale is very pleasant. The roasted malt gives it a bit of caramel-like sweetness. There is not a lot of hops bitterness to balance against the malt, but sometimes it is nice to find an American micro-brew that isn’t super hoppy. This beer is quite good, especially as a beer that everybody can enjoy.
Reading for the week: Henry V by William Shakespeare, Act 5, Scene 2 – After a vicious and bloody military campaign in France, King Harry professes his love to Princess Kate. They literally do not speak the same language, since he is English and she is French, but Harry refuses to let that stand in the way of love. “Now, fie upon my false French! By mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate.”
Question for the week:
A former professor of mine (in a subject other than philosophy) once complained that people were asking the wrong question when they asked why instead of to what end things happened. I submitted that why is equivocal, and to what end is but one of the reasonable interpretations of why. He ignored me and went on with his tirade.
Obviously, I was not breaking new ground. In Book II of Aristotle’s Physics, four different answers to “why questions” are enumerated. In an attempt to make Aristotle a bit easier to relate to, I will apply these four causes to the beer of the week, Genesse Ice.
First, the material cause of something is the physical matter that it is composed of. The material cause Genesse Ice is water, cheap grain, (not much) hops, and yeast.
Second, the formal cause of something is the essence or archetype of the thing. This cause is certainly the most difficult to grasp, but I think that we can say that this beer’s formal cause is the form “beer” or perhaps the more specific form “ice beer.” (Ice beer is style of beer that has elevated alcohol levels because after it is brewed, some of the water is removed in the form of ice crystals.)
Third, the efficient cause of a thing is the source of its coming to be or its maker. The efficient cause of this beer is the Genesee Brewing Company.
Finally (duh!), the final cause is the end for the sake of which a thing is; the goal. The final cause of Genesee Ice is to get drunk.
Of course, the term “drunk” is equivocal…
Beer of the week: Genesee Ice – As I mentioned before, Genesse makes some of my all-time favorite cheap beers. This does not fit into that category. Genesee Ice smells like drinking games, and not in a good way. It is the aroma of beer spilled on the flip-cup table. It is the essence of used beer pong cups. The smell is enough to put one right off. The taste, unfortunately, is worse yet. There is an unpleasant sweetness followed by a distinctly metallic aftertaste. This beer is surely meant to be consumed from a brown paper bag or from a plastic cup. And either way, it should elicit the existential question: why?
Reading of the week: Physics by Aristotle, Book II, Part 3 – “Knowledge” Aristotle tells us, “is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’.” The problem is that every thing and every action has more than one cause.
Question of the week: Which of your causes do you think defines you most?
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?