Feminism and the English Language

Can the damage to our mother tongue be undone?

by David Gelernter

The Weekly Standard 13/24, March 3, 2008

How can I teach my students to write decently when the English language has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Academic-Industrial Complex? Our language used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers. But in the 1970s and '80s, arrogant ideologues began recasting English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state. In consequence we have all got used to sentences where puffed-up words like "chairperson" and "humankind" strut and preen, where he-or-she's keep bashing into surrounding phrases like bumper cars and related deformities blossom like blisters; they are all markers of an epoch-making victory of propaganda over common sense.

We have allowed ideologues to pocket a priceless property and walk away with it. Today, as college students and full-fledged young English teachers emerge from the feminist incubator in which they have spent their whole lives, this victory of brainless ideology is on the brink of becoming institutionalized. If we mean to put things right, we can't wait much longer.

Our ability to write and read good, clear English connects us to one another and to our common past. The prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise. Shakespeare's most perfect phrases are miraculously simple and terse. ("Thou art the thing itself." "A plague o' both your houses." "Can one desire too much of a good thing?") The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written "pure simple English." Meanwhile, in everyday prose, a word with useless syllables or a sentence with useless words is a house fancied-up with fake dormers and chimneys. It is ugly and boring and cheap, and impossible to take seriously.

But our problem goes deeper than a few silly words and many tedious sentences. How can I (how can any teacher) get students to take the prime rule seriously when virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite? When students have been ordered since first grade to put "he or she" in spots where "he" would mean exactly the same thing, and "firefighter" where "fireman" would mean exactly the same thing? How can we then tell them, "Make every word, every syllable count!" They may be ignorant but they're not stupid. The well-aimed torpedo of Feminist English has sunk the whole process of teaching students to write. The small minority of born writers will always get by, inventing their own rules as they go. But we used to expect every educated citizen to write decently—and that goal is out the window.

"He or she" is the proud marshal of this pathetic parade. It has generated a cascading series of problems in which the Establishment, having noticed that Officially Approved gender-neutral sentences sound rotten, has dreamt up alternatives that are even worse. So let's consider "he or she." In some cases the awfulness of a feminist phrase requires several paragraphs to investigate systematically. Such investigations are worth pursuing nonetheless; our language is at stake.

When the style-smashers first announced, decades ago, that the neutral "he" meant "male" and excluded "female," they were lying and knew it. After all, when a critic like Mary Lascelles writes (in her classic 1939 study of Jane Austen) that "no reader can vouch for more than his own experience," one can hardly accuse her of envisioning male readers only. In feminist minds ideology excused the lie, and the goal of interchangeable sexes was a far greater good than decent English. Even today's English professors have heard (I suppose) of Eudora Welty, who wrote in her 1984 memoirs—just as the feminist anti-English campaign was nearing total victory—that every story writer imagines himself inside his characters; "it is his first step, and his last too." Was the author demonstrating her inability to write proper English? Or merely letting us know that there is no such thing as a female writer?

E.B. White was our greatest modern source of the purest, freshest, clearest, most bracing English, straight from a magic spring that bubbled for him alone. With A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, he was one of a triumvirate that made the New Yorker under its great editor Harold Ross a thing of beauty and a joy forever. The Elements of Style, White's revision of a short textbook by his Cornell professor William Strunk, is justly revered as the best thing of its kind. In the third edition (1979), White lays down the law on the he-or-she epidemic that was sweeping the country like a bad flu (or a bad joke).

The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. The word was unquestionably biased to begin with (the dominant male), but after hundreds of years it has become seemingly indispensable. It has no pejorative connotations; it is never incorrect.

(Warning: White died in 1985; a later edition of Elements published after his death is a disgrace to his memory.) In his 1984 White biography, Scott Elledge tells a remarkable story about "he or she":

The New Yorker rejected [in 1971] a parable White had written about the campaign of feminists to abolish the use of the pronoun his to mean "his or her." He told Roger Angell [his wife's son by a previous marriage] that he was "surprised, but not downhearted, that the piece got sunk. … To me, any woman's (or man's) attempt to remove the gender from the language is both funny and futile."

For the New Yorker to have rejected a piece by White, its darling and its hero, the man who did more than anyone but Ross himself to make the magazine the runaway, roaring success it became, and (by the way) a thorough-going liberal, was a sure sign that feminism had already got America in a chokehold.

The fixed idea forced by language rapists upon a whole generation of students, that "he" can refer only to a male, is (in short) wrong. It is applied with nonsensical inconsistency, too. The same feminist warriors who would never write "he" where "he or she" will do would also never write "the author or authoress" where "the author" will do. They hate such words as actress and waitress; in these cases they insist that the masculine form be used for men and women. You would never find my feminist colleagues writing a phrase such as, "When an Anglican priest or priestess mounts the pulpit …" You will find them writing, "When an Anglican priest mounts the pulpit, he or she is about to address the congregation." Logic has never been a strong suit among the commissar-intellectuals who have bossed American culture since the 1970s. True, "he" sounds explicitly masculine in a way "priest" doesn't, to those who are just learning the language. Children also find it odd that "enough" should be spelled that way, that New York should be at the same latitude as Spain, that 7 squared is 49, and so on. Education was invented to set people straight on all these fine points.

He-or-she'ing added so much ugly dead weight to the language that even the Establishment couldn't help noticing. So feminist authorities went back to the drawing board. Unsatisfied with having rammed their 80-ton 16-wheeler into the nimble sports-car of English style, they proceeded to shoot the legs out from under grammar—which collapsed in a heap after agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional. "When an Anglican priest mounts the pulpit, they are about to address the congregation." How many of today's high school English teachers would mark this sentence wrong, or even "awkward"? (Show of hands? Not one?) Yet such sentences skreak like fingernails on a blackboard.

Slashes are just as bad. He/she is about to address the congregation" is unacceptable because it's not clear how to pronounce it: "he she," "he or she," "he slash she"? The unclarity is a nuisance, and each possibility sounds awful. Writing English is like writing music: One lays down the footprints of sounds that are recreated in each reader's mind. To be deaf to English is like being deaf to birdsong or laughter or rustling trees or babbling brooks—only worse, because English is the communal, emotional, and intellectual net that holds this nation together, if anything can. Occasionally one sees "s/he," which shows not indifference but outright contempt for the language and the reader.

And it gets worse. At the bottom of this junkpile is a maneuver that seems to be growing in popularity, at least among college students: writing "she" instead of neutral "he," or interchanging "he" and "she" at random. This grotesque outcome follows naturally from the primordial lie. If you make students believe that "he" can refer only to a male, then writers who use "he" in sentences referring to men and women are actually discussing males only and excluding females—and might just as well use "she" and exclude males, leaving the reader to sort things out for himself. The she-sentences that result tend to slam on a reader's brakes and send him smash-and-spinning into the roadside underbrush, cursing under his breath. (I still remember the first time I encountered such a sentence, in an early-1980s book by a noted historian about a Jesuit in Asia.)

Here is the problem with the dreaded she-sentence. Ideologues can lie themselves blue in the face without changing the fact that, to those who know modern English as it existed until the cultural revolution and still does exist in many quarters, the neutral he "has lost all suggestion of maleness." But there is no such thing as a neutral "she"; even feminists don't claim there is.

"The driver turns on his headlights" is not about a male or female person; it is about a driving person. But "the driver turns on her headlights" is a sentence about a female driver. Just as any competent reader listens to what he is reading, he pictures it too (if it can be pictured); hearing and imagining the written word are ingrained habits. A reader who had thought the topic was drivers is now faced by a specifically female driver, and naturally wonders why. What is the writer getting at? To distract your reader for political purposes, to trip him up merely to demonstrate your praiseworthy right-thinkingness, is a low trick.

White's comment: "If you think she is a handy substitute for he, try it and see what happens."

Sometimes a writer can avoid plastering his prose with feminist bumper-stickers and still not provoke the running dogs of the Establishment by diving into the plural whenever danger threatens. ("Drivers turn on their headlights.") White's comment:

Alternatively, put all controversial nouns in the plural and avoid the choice of sex altogether, and you may find your prose sounding general and diffuse as a result.

But the real problem goes deeper. Why should I worry about feminist ideology while I write? Why should I worry about anyone's ideology? Writing is a tricky business that requires one's whole concentration, as any professional will tell you; as no doubt you know anyway. Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose? Bargaining over the next word, shaping each phrase, netting and vetting the countless images that drift through the mind like butterflies in a summer garden, mounting some and releasing others—and keeping the trajectory and target always in mind?

Throw the bum out.

It's a disgrace that we graduate class after class of young Americans who will never be able to write down their thoughts effectively—in a business report, a letter of application or recommendation, a postcard or email, or any other form. Our one consolation is that the country is filling up gradually with people who have been reared on ugly, childish writing and will never expect anything else. But the implications of our spineless surrender go deeper. We have accepted, implicitly, a hit-and-run vandalizing of English—the richest, most expressive language in the world. Languages such as French are shaped and guided by official boards of big shots. But English used to be a language of the people, by the people, for the people. "The living language is like a cowpath," wrote White; "it is the creation of the cows themselves, who, having created it, follow it or depart from it according to their whims or their needs." We have allowed our academic overlords to plow up White's cow-path and replace it with a steel-and-concrete highway, hemmed in by guardrails and heavily patrolled by police.

Of course all languages change. A feminist might say that he-or-she is merely the latest twist in our ever-changing cowpath; that he-or-she was the will of the people. But this too is a lie, and in fairness to my opponents I have never heard them deploy it. They know that Americans of the late 1960s were not struck en masse by sudden unhappiness over the neutral he or the word "chairman." Such complaints never did rank high on the average American's list of worries. (Way back in the 1970s, "chairperson" was in fact a one-word joke: an object lesson in the ludicrous places you would reach if you took Feminist English seriously.) In fact the New English was deliberately created and pounded into children's heads by an intellectual elite asserting its control over American culture. The same conclusion follows independently from a language's well-established tendency to simplify and compress its existing structure (like a settling sea-bed) to make room for constantly arriving new coinages. Words like "authoress" would almost certainly have disappeared with no help from feminists. But "he" transforming itself into "he or she" is like a ball rolling uphill. It doesn't happen unless someone has volunteered to push.

The depressing trail continues one last mile. What happens to a nation's thinking when you ban such phrases as "great men"? The alternatives are so bad—"great person" sounds silly; "great human being" is a casual tribute to a friend—that it's hard to know where to turn. "Hero" doesn't work; "Wittgenstein was a great man" is a self-sufficient assertion, but "Wittgenstein was a hero" is not. Was he a war hero, a philosophical hero? (Yes and yes.) "Wittgenstein was a great heart" (also true) can't be rephrased in hero-speak, and can't substitute for "great man" either.

We happen to know also that the idea of "great men" has been bounced right out of education at every level. Nowadays students are taught to admire celebrities and money instead. We might well have misplaced the "great man" idea anyway, but losing the phrase didn't help. Civilization copes poorly with ideas that have no names.

And what should we say instead of "brotherhood"? "Crown thy good with siblinghood"? "Tolerance" is no substitute for "brotherhood"; it's passive and bland where "brotherhood" is active and inspiring. "Brotherhood" has accordingly been quietly stricken from the list of good things to which Americans should aspire.

We allowed ideologues to wreck the English language. Do we have the courage to rebuild?

David GelernterDavid Gelernter, a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a professor of computer science at Yale.