They who hesitates is lost.

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?


Cheese and Crackers!

“I’ll get my homework done later, geez!”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, even euphemistically!”

I actually overheard an exchange substantially like that once. Until then, I could hardly have imagined a mother scolding her teen-aged child for such a thing. I had never even thought about the fact that “geez” is certainly a euphemism employed specifically to avoid saying “Jesus.” With a little thought, though, one could easily list quite a few very common euphemistic replacements: “gosh” for “God”, “darn” in place of “damn”, “heck” for “hell”, “son of a gun” for “son of a bitch”, “fudge” for…  In short, every expletive that you might use with children in the room.

But pervasive euphemisms are not limited to exclamations or insults. The the word “restroom” has long given the squeamish or polite an excuse to avoid saying “toilet” or any other descriptive term. (And who doesn’t prefer a woman who “powders her nose” to one who “shits”?) Some of these euphemisms have been in use so long that we’ve forgotten that they are not the original terms. For example, H.L. Mencken informs us that the word “rooster” only came into usage to avoid having to say the word “cock.”

In his book The American Language, Mencken explores the origins of many of these euphemisms and expletives and compares the American and British sensibilities. Slang is an excellent indicator that American English is thoroughly distinct from British English. (For a crude example on this point, ponder what it might mean “to bum a fag.”) I find The American Language especially interesting because language is constantly evolving and sensibilities are constantly changing along with them. The rapidity of these changes is astounding. A few short years ago, South Park positively could not be aired before 10 pm; last week, I saw a re-run before 10 am.

And even as some words become less and less taboo (remember that episode when the characters of South Park said “shit” over a hundred times?) other words become more taboo. The word “retard” is now considered so offensive that I’ve seen it censored when used in a technical sense other than mental retardation. Similarly, “crippled” has given way to “handicapped” or “disabled”, which have in turn given rise to the euphemisims “handicapable” and “differently abled.”

There are those who rail against such changes, but it is a natural part of the way language evolves. What is edgy or obscene can never remain the same because there are always people pushing and pulling at the limits of decency. Because of this constant flux, it is important to remember that the idea is what matters, not necessarily the word that is used to express it. So, by gosh, you’d better not take the Lord’s name in vain, even using euphemisms.


Beer of the Week: National Bohemian Beer – H.L. Mencken is known as “The Sage of Baltimore” and was also an avid beer-drinker. These facts lead me to the conclusion that Mencken consumed his share of National Beer in his day. I too have had quite a few National Beers. Unlike almost every other American college*, at my college “light beer”** was rarely consumed. We drank Pabst, Miller High Life, and National Beer. In college I could buy a six-pack of National for $3 and I regarded this as a benchmark for price. In Baltimore, (euphemistically known as “The Land of Pleasant Living”,) this beer is called “Boh” or “Natty Boh” or “Bay Water”. But I prefer to call it National Beer, a name more familiar when it was still brewed in “Charm City”. The beer itself really is pretty awful. It is over carbonated and it smells of sour grains. It is not as watery and bland as most cheap beers, but this may not be an advantage since it really does not taste that good. But I’ll still drink it at Orioles games (if the Heavy Seas vendor is too far from my seat); after all, it is nostalgia in a can.

Reading for the Week: The American Language by H.L. Mencken, Chapter 22 Expletives and Forbidden Words – This reading is partially interesting because it is fun to see how much things have changed since the early 20th century. (“Unwell” apparently referred primarily to “women’s troubles” at one time.) It is also partially interesting to see how much things have stayed the same. (All sorts of internal problems are still called “stomach aches” even if the actual source of discomfort is in organs that we prefer not to mention by name.) And finally, it is interesting because there are so many exciting “cusswords” that I can’t wait to try out!

Question for the Week: How aware are you of all the euphemisms that you use from day to day?

Linguistic Anarchy

I have become something of a linguistic anarchist. The way I see it, the English language does not have rules. Moreover, it does not need rules. As a matter of fact, the most popular “rule book” for English writing is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the very title of which indicates that it is not a book of rules but a stylistic guide. One is not “wrong” if he does not follow Strunk and White, he is simply “unfashionable.”

That said, children ought to be taught “proper spelling” and “proper grammar.” Before one can be a free thinker and an innovator, one must have a firm grasp of what they are rebelling against. This opinion of mine extends to the fine arts as well. I have a deep-seated distrust of extremely novel painters and musicians who did not first demonstrate their ability to master more conventional forms. Dali and Picasso are both extremely interesting to me and they are made much more so by the fact that they established themselves as traditionally talented before their work became more heterodox. It shows that their art is not simple novelty, but innovation.

As it turns out, the same principles may apply to mathematics. Euclid’s geometry is every bit as artificial as any attempt to construct an “English grammar.” Whereas the concepts of number seem inherent (eg. the number 2 can correspond with two “real” objects,) The principles of Euclidean geometry do not correspond with anything other than definitions and axioms. As Einstein writes in his book Relativity, “The concept “true” does not tally with the assertions of pure geometry, because by the word “true” we are eventually in the habit of designating always the correspondence with a “real” object;” there are no tangible “straight lines” or “points” or “circles” as defined by Euclid.

And yet, it is essential that an education in geometry start with these “artificial” constructs in the same way that an education in English should start with grammar and spelling, or an education in music should start with scales. Eventually, the most gifted mathematical minds can move beyond Euclid, but it is impossible to make any serious headway as an innovator without knowing what one’s jumping off point is.

Beer of the Week: Viru – This beer comes in an octagonal pyramid bottle. Not a “true” octagonal pyramid, but pretty cool none the less. I have no reason to think that I had ever seen or touched anything from Estonia before purchasing this beer. In fact, the extent of my knowledge about Estonia consists of being able to identify the flag (it is black, blue and white) and the knowledge that they are often grouped with Latvia and Lithuania. Now I know one more thing: their beer is of a rather middling quality.  It is very, very pale and exhibits no extraordinary features. It is nothing but a standard macro-brew in a very silly bottle. It is hard not to judge a country by the quality of their beer, but I’ll give Estonia a pass since they were under Soviet rule for so long… I think.

Reading for the Week: Relativity by Albert Einstein, Section 1 – The beginning of this book is a great teaser for what is to come. Einstein refers to Euclid as “the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers.” And then he questions the “truth” of that edifice and indicates that by the time he is done, “we shall see that this “truth” is limited, and we shall consider the extent of its limitation.”

Question for the week: Do you believe that English has rules? Maybe Steven Fry can help free you from that: