The Sexist Pronoun

Anyone who has ever dabbled in writing has likely encountered the vexing conundrum of having had to select—without running the risk of distracting his/her/his or her/their readers from the actual substance of the text by prompting them to try and glean the writer’s socio-political leanings from his/her/his or her/their selection—the aptest pronoun to refer back to a non-specific individual of undefined sex, as in Before you entrust a physician with your health, you may want to ask him/her/him or her/them if he/she/(s)he/he or she/they know(s) the difference between a femur and a spleen.

In cases where it would be impractical to preemptively sidestep this literary land mine altogether by simply pluralizing the noun in question and then using they, the hallowed The Elements of Style, published several decades ago, squarely recommends going with the traditional—and nowadays arguably sexist—he over the activist-sounding she, the thrice longer (“Omit needless words!”) he or she, the numerically mismatching and hence grammatically dubious they, the voguish s/he (bound to trip up anyone reading the text aloud), or alternating between he and she (which may come across as either indecisiveness or holier-than-thou equality-mongering); trusting that a person intelligent enough to read will also be intelligent enough to identify he, him, or his as catchalls whenever intended as such.

Opponents of the all-inclusive he like to put forth that language shapes the way we think, wherefore we ought to help establish, or improve, gender equality by way of diversifying our pronouns.

But does our language really shape our thinking, a popular notion a.k.a. linguistic relativity a.k.a. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

As I’m sitting here typing these words, I’m wearing gray jogging pants and a black t-shirt. How many articles of clothing have I just mentioned?

If you’re thinking two, then language clearly does not shape your thinking. If it did, you’d have answered at least three, as I referred to my pants in the plural.

Few of us count the pants we have on as more than one item, no matter how often in our lives we’ve referred to them in the plural, nor how often we’ve heard others refer to theirs (or ours, or anyone’s) in the plural.

And when someone says two pairs of pants, we understand this to mean two items, not four, even though the word pair in itself connotes two, which renders it arithmetically counterintuitive that two pairs of something could comprise no more than two items in total.

This seems to indicate that language does not impact our thinking.

An oft-cited example in support of linguistic relativity is that Eskimos have myriad terms for snow and, accordingly, can discern myriad different types of snow, whereas most of us know but one word for it and that therefore pretty much all snow looks alike to us.

More likely, though, while we generally couldn’t care less what type of snow it was that gummed up our morning commute, an Eskimo’s igloo might collapse and bury him and his family alive if he accidentally used [snow type 18] as opposed to [snow type 47] as mortar to hold the snowbricks together (whatever the Inuit words for these specific snow types may be), and this naturally motivates him to pay more nuanced attention to the white stuff, a more nuanced terminology being the consequence rather than the cause of his people’s snow discernment capabilities.

Chances are, he can differentiate between even more kinds of snow than he can name. (Yes, or she.) And so can we. It’s just that, in our more southerly latitudes, unless we’re attempting to determine what kind of wax to slather onto the bottom of our skis for improved friction performance, our minds are generally preoccupied with matters other than snow analysis.

What goes for snow goes for color as well. When I designed this little website, I frequently hunted for very specific colors to match particular page elements, for which purpose I consulted various online color charts that would tell me the hexagonal color codes I needed. I was struck by how many shades of, say, orange, my brain was instantly able to differentiate among, even though I know only one word to denote the color orange. If language shaped my perception, how come all orange doesn’t look the same to me?

Since we kicked off this discussion with the problem of gendered pronouns, let us have the concept of gender itself—grammatical gender, that is—deliver the coup de grace to the hypothesis that language influences our thinking. Having long ago bought the farm in English, grammatical gender is alive and kicking in many, perhaps most, modern languages.

While French and Spanish boast a paltry two genders—masculine and feminine, marked by the definite articles le and la, and el and la, respectively—my native tongue, German, offers a whopping three: masculine, feminine, and neuter (technically, the absence of gender, but commonly regarded as a gender in its own right; just as black, the absence of color, commonly passes as a color), marked by the definite articles der, die, and das.

The German word for human being, for instance, is der Mensch (masculine). The German word for person is die Person (feminine).

Having been raised on these linguistic gender distinctions, if language indeed shaped my thinking, I should be expected to gravitate toward perceiving human beings as masculine and persons as feminine.

But—guess what—I don’t.

When I hear or read that “one person was killed, another injured in the crash,” my mind no more jumps to the snap conclusion that these unfortunate individuals were females than does the mind of a native English speaker, in whose brain, unlike in a native German speaker’s, it was never inculcated that person is feminine.

Most bizarre of all, the German word for girl is not feminine but neuter: das Mädchen. Translated literally, us German speakers will say The girl wore its favorite dress. That’s right. Not her dress but its dress. And now it puts the lotion in the basket, as the avocational tailor in The Silence of the Lambs so chillingly commands the terrified girl trapped at the bottom of the well shaft in his basement—nothing dehumanizing about that it when translated verbatim into German, where all girls are it by grammatical dictum.

Not that we lack words for she and her. We most certainly do. We just don’t use them on girls. We use them on forks, for example, as in Check out this fork—she has “Made in Taiwan” embossed on her handle!

That being so, I can assure you that I have never ever thought of girls as anything other than thoroughly female human beings (human beings being marked as masculine, if you recall), nor of dining utensils as anything other than wholly genderless objects, irrespective of whatever gender I habitually impose upon either when communicating in my native language.

So what am I to make of the popular theory that our language—i.e., its vocabulary, structure, and grammar—prejudices our thinking and that, therefore, opting for he as a co-ed pronoun to refer to generic individuals of either sex invariably biases our minds in favor of the referents being male, resulting in a distorted perception of reality?

Quite on the contrary, I would venture to postulate a fundamental disconnect between our language and the way we think, feel, and perceive the world around us.

Otherwise, absent a singular second-person pronoun (discounting the mothballed thou), how could an English speaker ever tell whether he’s addressing one person and a group?

Or she.

It’s Enough to Say Dakota

Why is South Dakota called South Dakota and not simply Dakota?

There already is a North Dakota. Where else should the only other Dakota—we’re talking states, not actresses or buildings—be located but to its south?

South Carolina, same story. Waste of a word. Not to mention South Korea. But let’s keep it stateside.

Ever heard of a commonwealth called East Virginia? Of course not. There’s a West Virginia, so it follows logically that its sole sibling lies east. No need to say it. If Virginia lay south of West Virginia, then West Virginia would be called North Virginia.

It’s really not that difficult to divine the location of the other state of a pair when one is clearly marked by its cardinal direction.

Between You and I: It’s Me!

Grapo

The other day, CNN’s early morning weatherman explained that a particular meteorological metric (some wind speed or precipitation amount or whatever, I forget the context) “may not seem that much to you or I, but …”

I submit that he never would have said “may not seem that much to I or you,” not only to avoid coming across as an ill-mannered born-in-a-barn churl that likes to put himself first, but primarily because his linguistic sensibilities would Continue reading “Between You and I: It’s Me!”

WARNING: This Post Contains Language

Literally doesn’t literally mean literally anymore.

Having had its literal meaning habitually perverted by children and illiterates (i.e., the same segments of society that, as per Prof. William Strunk of The Elements of Style-fame, are apt to think inflammable means not combustible) over so many years, dictionaries, always struggling to strike a balance between their prescriptivist vs. descriptivist inclinations, have begun to cave to popular usage and list “figuratively,” “virtually,” and “in effect” among the definitions of literally. Not merely introducing a heretofore unrelated line of meanings, these novel definitions represent the very concept the term literally was intended to contrast with, thus turning literally into a contranym, a word with at least two meanings that contradict one another.

Words often change meaning over time, a process known as semantic drift. Sometimes, a word loses its original meaning in favor of a new one, as was the case with Continue reading “WARNING: This Post Contains Language”

How Language Works or Why We Should Keep Using “Retard”

Arrested Development

Never having been too ravenous a sampler at the prodigious buffet of TV drama and sitcoms, I had been blissfully unaware of a show called “Arrested Development” until recently, when said chucklefest made the entertainment headlines in the runup of its latest season being released on Netflix.

Clicking on some of these headlines, I expected to read editorial diatribes berating the show’s producers for gross insensitivity and urging the entertainment community to evince a bit more compassion when it comes to selecting titles and tag lines for their products.

Yet in lieu of critical finger-wagging, to my surprise I found nothing but unanimous encomia and no accusations of Continue reading “How Language Works or Why We Should Keep Using “Retard””

What Does Fire Do?

Arctic temperatures have descended upon your city, the heating is out, and so you light a log in your fireplace.

Now the log burns, and, cuddling up on your sofa with a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, and a good book, you enjoy your little fire.

But what exactly does the fire do?

It makes no sense to say the fire “burns.” What burns is the log, not the fire.

Besides, there can be no fire without the concurrent process of burning, which renders the immediate juxtaposition of Continue reading “What Does Fire Do?”

Monstrous Parlance

I just received an email from Monster.com that opens thus:

This message is to notify you that your Monster resume has expired, and is no longer searchable by employers.

Now, I’m not one to spaz out over trifles, but this kind of stuff really harshes my mellow; and I don’t mean the superfluous comma after expired or the missing accents on résumé.

What’s the sole purpose of an email? To convey a message. What’s the sole purpose of a message? To notify.

Therefore, as an alternative to prefacing what is obviously a message with a clause that says what it is, followed by a statement of its obvious purpose as if I might otherwise think the verbiage in front of me were not a message intended to notify me of something but a sample swatch for a wallpaper, may I suggest the following improvement:

Your Monster résumé has expired and is no longer searchable by employers.

Skip the accents for all I care. Just knock it off with fatuous prefatory fillers à la We’d like to inform you that… and like piffle from the department of the bleeping obvious.

Thank you.

Fork in the Road

When you come to a fork in the road, take it out.

For whatever reason, somebody may have driven a salad fork into the blacktop. Or a pitchfork. A visual artist may have done it. Or a savage road killer.

A construction worker worker may have accidentally dropped a fork into the smoldering asphalt mix during his lunch break, whereupon the hapless piece of cutlery merged with the bituminous brew and thus ended up a fork in the road.

What else might a “fork in the road” conceivably be?

Picture your standard-issue dinner fork: it consists of a handle which, at one end, terminates into several pointed prongs called Continue reading “Fork in the Road”

Live and Let Live

There is no courage without fear. Implicit in the concept of courage is the notion of acting in spite of being afraid. If you’re not worried that anything bad might happen to you in consequence of your actions, you cannot be said to be acting courageously. Knowingly entering a body of water full of ravenous sharks is courageous, but diving into a great-white-infested bay in the sincere albeit erroneous belief that it contains no sharks or that the sharks it may contain are harmless even though they aren’t, requires no courage. From your perspective, it’s no different than going for a swim in the pool. What’s courageous about that? The fact that you may end up getting ripped to shreds is irrelevant when it comes to determining your level of courage going in, which is exactly zero if you are oblivious to any potential dangers lurking in the water—as it would be if, for whatever reason, you didn’t mind getting supped upon by a big fish.

Likewise, you cannot be said to be “tolerant” unless you have a problem with that which you are being tolerant about. If rap music doesn’t bother you and never has, it makes no sense to Continue reading “Live and Let Live”

Black Ink

You are my favorite visitor.

Absent nonverbal clues, you have no way of knowing whether I’m being sincere, sarcastic, affectionately teasing, polite in a perfunctory way, or none of the above.

As written and in isolation, “You are my favorite visitor” could mean you are my absolute favorite visitor, my least favorite visitor, that I’m just goofing around, or anything in between.

During an acting class, a teacher of mine once opened a play to a random page, held it up, and asked what this was. Student responses ranged from “a play” to “a scene from a play” to “a page in a play.”

The correct answer? Continue reading “Black Ink”

If Words Have No Meaning

From today’s edition of the Washington Post:

Federal authorities are planning to move the trial of the alleged gunman in the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson to San Diego because of extensive pretrial publicity in Arizona, federal law enforcement sources said Sunday night.

Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution:

The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed. [emphasis added]

The Tuscon shooting on 8 January 2011 was clearly a crime, was clearly committed within a state, and my copy of the Constitution does not contain a trial location exception for “pretrial publicity” or anything else.

What is government if words have no meaning?

None of Your Business

NOYB

If I ask you what’s your favorite ice cream flavor, what was the last Hollywood movie you saw, or whether you’ve ever been to Vermont, chances are you’ll answer my questions honestly and with little hesitation (provided you’re in the mood to chat in the first place).

If I move on to inquiring about your ATM PIN, your kinkiest sexual fantasy, or your rap sheet, you’ll probably be more reluctant to tell, thinking (perhaps even saying aloud) that these matters are none of my business.

Obviously, how much and what type of information you’re game to share with me hinges on a variety of factors, such as the nature and depth of our relationship, the time and place of our conversation, your upbringing, and how many Continue reading “None of Your Business”

To Tell Or to Zip It?

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. (Jesus Christ; Luke 6:31)

It happened again. I perused someone else’s latest blog post, and there it was, in full plumage, staring me right in the face—a typo. How to proceed in this oft-encountered and delicate situation presents the horniest of dilemmas.

Oops. Thorniest. Caught that one myself.

Personally, I find it rather impolite and inconsiderate when a reader detects a typographical error—or, for that matter, a slipshod grammar gaffe or an ungainly English-as-a-second-language-type blooper—in any of my writings and omits to apprise me thereof. Call me Continue reading “To Tell Or to Zip It?”

Best When Toe-Tagged

Barack Obama’s presidency is unconstitutional. His place of birth has nothing to do with it. The “birthers” were correct in their conclusion but wrapped themselves around the wrong issue to get there.

Mr. Obama’s presidency is unconstitutional because, at age 47, he was simply too young to have been inaugurated. All his acts as “president” are therefore null and void. For all practical purposes, the nation has been a rudderless dreadnought for going on 18 months now.

Setting forth eligibility criteria for the office of president, Article II of the U.S. Constitution clearly states Continue reading “Best When Toe-Tagged”

Address (Where You Live)

Yesterday I received my 2010 Census form in the mail. Didn’t I just read somewhere that they were looking for census workers to knock on doors and ask personal questions? So then wherefore this form in my mailbox?

Presumably, someone will ring my bell shortly to inquire whether I had liked its font and the design with its light-blue background, and whether I found the Start here at the top enlightening or perplexing given the omission of a matching Stop here at the bottom of the final page. After all, without having been told when to stop, I might have plowed through the end of the form like a Toyota on steroids and kept checking imaginary boxes until my pen ran out of black or blue ink.

So most likely, the door-knocking wetware will be deployed to collect feedback on the forms; to make sure people received, understood, completed, and returned them; and perhaps to elicit one or the other confession about Continue reading “Address (Where You Live)”