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?
As I noted in last week’s post, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language had a very pronounced effect on my enjoyment of reading Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor and Benito Cereno. I was arrested surprisingly often by expressions that Orwell would have found objectionable. The not uncommonest objectionable language was Melville’s incessant use of “not un-” structures.
Orwell would that the “not un-” structure be laughed out of existence. “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” As his example shows, this formula is usually a pretentious and asinine way of saying something that could be said more simply and directly. Why say that Billy’s expression was “not unlike that of a dog” rather than “like that of a dog”? What value is there in throwing in a double negative?
I strained my mind for a defense of this questionable structure. The best I could do is quote the great Welsh philosopher Tom Jones: “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone.” Somehow, that line does not seem to mean the same thing as “it is usual to be loved by anyone.” For the not un- structure to work, there has to be some subtle difference between [adjective] and not un[adjective]. For some adjectives or adverbs, exist a sort of neutral middle ground in that space. But every example I try to put into words seems to fall apart. It seems like simple math; a = -(-a). There is no room for subtle distinctions.
And even if there is a significant meaning between [adjective] and not un[adjective], Melville’s use of the dubious formula never seems to convey such a subtle distinction. I was not unaffected by having to read so many not unwell written sentences from by a not unfamous author. Nevertheless, his stories are not unenjoyable.
Beer of the week: Krušovice Černé – This dark lager comes from one of the Czech Republic’s oldest breweries. In fact, the “1581” does not refer to the founding of the brewery, but to the year the brewery was offered for sale to Emperor Rudolf II. The beer itself is very dark, with a tan head that laces nicely on the glass. The dark roasted malts are evident in the aroma and in the flavor. However, the beer feels very thin and there simply is not a lot of flavor to it. It is not a bad beer, but I would hope for more from a 500-year-old operation.
Reading of the week: Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville – This week’s chapter does not include any not un- sentences. It also does not include any of the characters of the story. It is a tangent on the old glory of naval warfare before clunky ironclads replaced shapely men-of-war and before “martial utilitarians” replaced the likes of Horatio Nelson, “the greatest sailor since our world began.”
Question of the week: Can you think of a situation where a not un- structure adds some meaning to a sentence?
Thanks to innumerable news headlines, I know that Washington D.C. is a hotbed for corruption; that Silicon Valley is a hotbed for technology firms; that universities are a hotbed for political dissent. Hotbeds abound. But it was not until I read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell that I even realized that I didn’t know what a hotbed is! And I strongly suspect that most of the writers who use the word don’t know either.
A hotbed, I am informed, is a piece of earth that is heated by the introduction of decaying manure or compost for the purposes of encouraging germination. Presumably, a long time ago, some clever individual decided to speak about a certain locale or community as a hotbed, one particularly conducive to the growth of a certain ideology rather than seeds. It is a very vivid and apt metaphor. Or, rather, it was a very vivid metaphor. It has been so overused that the word no longer evokes any imagery at all. Hotbed is now just an ordinary word, used by writers who are too lazy to think of their own phrases to convey an image.
In search of another example, I typed “roughshod” into a google news search and found nearly 2,000 recent articles that included the word. Politicians ride roughshod over the Bill of Rights, greedy developers ride roughshod over our communities, football teams run roughshod over their opponents. Ironically, the football examples are almost accidentally accurate. A roughshod horse is one that has special spiked horseshoes for handling icy conditions. Football players wear spiked shoes as well and, on occasion, literally run over their opponents. Still, when writers use the word roughshod, they almost certainly do not expect their readers to picture the equestrian equivalent of tire chains. Like hotbed, roughshod is a dead metaphor and its use is simply lazy writing.
As much as I hate to call out Herman Melville, I suspect that George Orwell would have ripped into him for this sort of writing. Just after I read Politics and the English Language, I reread Benito Cereno and finished Billy Budd, Sailor. While reading, I was constantly distracted by lines that would have drawn hefty rebukes from Orwell. At one point in Billy Budd, Melville provided a doubly questionable phrase by both mixing metaphors and using a metaphor apparently without knowing (or caring) what it actually means: “these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touch[ed] Billy’s heart to the quick.”
Let us break this down, shall we? “To touch one’s heart” is a metaphor as old language itself (probably.) It is hardly objectionable on that count, though; the heart is still the symbolic center of emotion and there is perhaps no better way to say that words inspire emotion than to say that they touch the heart. “[Cut] to the quick”, however, is an expression that occasionally gets used without any real understanding. The quick is the living flesh under one’s finger or toenails. When one trims his nails, he must be careful not to “cut to the quick”, lest he experience a sharp pain. If somebody else cuts one to the quick, the injury is multiplied because of the intimate nature of the injury. The person doing the cutting is no passing stranger and certainly not an avowed enemy; he is somebody who has been trusted to aid in one’s personal toilet. So when I read that words touched Billy’s heart to the quick, I pictured an anthropomorphic heart having his fingernails clipped. Surely that is not the image that Melville wanted to convey, but that is what his words seem to imply. How can a heart be touched to the quick? According to Orwell, such a mixing of metaphors is “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” If Melville did not stop to think what his words really conveyed, why should any reader care either?
Beer of the Week: Samuel Smith Pure Brewed Organic Lager Beer – This beer is a bit better and a bit maltier than an average mass-produced lager. However, it simply does not finish strong. There is neither enough malt or hops to really make this beer work. It doesn’t taste bad, but it really should have more flavor. I wanted to like this more.
Reading for the Week: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell – “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Politicians like when language deteriorates and gives way to meaningless platitudes and dead metaphors because it is much safer for them to say things without substance than to actually put forward a clear and concise thought.
Question for the week: While some of the phrases that Orwell objects to are still in common usage, such as Achilles’ heal, axe to grind, others have gone the way of Betamax, such as ring the changes on, jackboot, and take up the cudgel. What more recent phrases have become so overused that they are now devoid of meaning?
The statement “I drank a hundred beers last night!” is hyperbole; a simple exaggeration. Hyperbole admits of degrees. “I drank fifteen beers,” or “I drank a hundred beers,” or “I drank a thousand beers,” can all mean the same thing: “I drank many beers.” The difference is simply the level of the hyperbole. It is clear that the more of an exaggeration there is, the stronger the impression the statement creates.
The level of exaggeration can be increased in other ways than simply increasing the number, however. One way to accomplish this is simply to assert that the number is not an exaggeration at all. What creates a stronger impression of drinking a lot of beers: asserting that I drank “a hundred beers”, or asserting that, “no, seriously, it was an entire hundred”? It is clear that an exaggeration that is presented as fact is a bigger exaggeration than one acknowledged to stretch the truth.
Although this is sure to ruffle the feathers of some uptight pedants, the natural conclusion of this analysis is that the use of the word “literally” within an exaggeration is not only perfectly acceptable, but actually creates a stronger impression. Compare:
“I drank a hundred beers last night!”
“I drank literally a hundred beers last night!”
The second of those two sentences presents a greater exaggeration because of the assertion that it is actually not an exaggeration at all; “I honestly did drink that many beers.”
Opponents to this use of “literally” complain that the word literally means “actually; in fact”. To use it hyperbolically doesn’t make sense because I did not actually drink a hundred beers. Well of course I didn’t actually drink a hundred beers. That is the very nature of an exaggeration. They might as well complain about the use of “a hundred”? Hundred has a fixed meaning of “100; one more than 99”. But there is no complaint that using “a hundred” to mean anything less than 99 doesn’t make sense; I did not drink a hundred beers. The people who object to using the word “literally” in hyperbole are either objecting to hyperbole on the whole or are being inconsistent. Either way, they are stifling creative expression.
Note: Some of the objection to using “literally” in this way is simply reactionary. Some people have taken to using that word as a filler. These people just throw the word into their speech in the way that others throw in “like” or “uh”, without adding any meaning to their sentences. This is clearly a waste of a good word and is worth opposing. But when the word “literally” is used with purpose to create a stronger impression, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Beer of the Week: Big Flats 1901 – As far as I can tell, Big Flats is the house brand for Walgreens pharmacy. The “Light” version is literally the cheapest beer in Chicago, at two and a half dollars per six-pack (before taxes.) At such a low price, there will always be a market for this stuff. In addition to being cheep, a large scale taste test determined that Big Flats tastes better than Budweiser. Faint praise, to be sure, but regular Bud drinkers might consider making the switch for the taste if not for the savings. The first glass I had shocked me because I’d never before had a beer that tasted so much of corn. It was like a tortilla in a glass. It lacked anything by way of a hops presence to balance the cheap grain flavor, so all that remained in the aftertaste was that somewhat insipid corn taste. The tortilla flavor inspired me to pour my second Big Flats 1901 the same way I would pour a cheap Mexican beer. With a pinch of salt and a lime wedge, this beer actually becomes a reasonable choice, especially on a warm day. The lime dominates the flavor and I’d be very surprised if most people could tell this beer apart from a Corona served the same way. It really isn’t bad with lime and salt, but limes are expensive; it’s probably smarter to just pay more for a better beer.
Reading of the Week: Proslogium by St. Anselm of Canterbury – If we accept Anselm’s definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” we are led to the conclusion that God must exist. A greatest conceivable being that is not real is not as great as a greatest conceivable being that is real. Therefore, the God that is not believed in is not actually a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, which goes against the postulated definition. This is very similar to my argument for the use of the word “literally” in exaggeration: an exaggeration that is asserted to be the truth is a greater exaggeration than one that is acknowledged to be a false statement of fact. (This also serves as a great illustration of the fact that in a debate, one ought never concede the other side’s first point.)
Question of the Week: I think that in terms of exaggerated quantities, I have shown that “literally” can reasonably be used as an intensifier. Does the argument extend to other forms of figurative speech? (Eg. “This is literally the biggest beer there has ever been,” or “I drank so much beer that I might literally explode.”) I suspect that the answer is yes.
“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?