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Inclusivist Language

It used to be that when someone wrote an essay, he would refer to non-specific individuals with the masculine singular pronoun (‘he’), and it was understood that the ‘he’ in question could be either a ‘he’ or a ‘she’.  That’s how I was taught to do it in high school.  But that was not politically correct enough, so now when that same someone writes an essay, she should be more thoughtful about her choice of pronouns.  Perhaps she should alternate between the two pronouns from paragraph to paragraph, or perhaps just use the feminine singular pronoun (‘she’) to make up for years of patriarchal domination.  I am not immune to the pressure to conform to this system and have yielded to in in a few blog posts, though in academic papers I have tended to just reword my sentences or come up with another way to convey the thought.

The problem with using ‘she’ though is that I have not been trained to think of the term as inclusive of both genders.  On the other hand, I typically do think of ‘he’ as inclusive according to the grammar rules I was originally taught.  I have recently become especially aware of the problem as I read through Nelson Pike’s Mystic Union.  Pike first catalogs the experiences of Christian mystics and then analyzes what conclusions we can draw from the reports of those experiences philosophically.  Most of the Christian mystics through history have been female, and Pike notes that even males have tended to speak of their souls in feminine language, e.g. “My soul was lifted out of my body and she beheld the glory of the Lord.”  Personally I find that just freaky.  This was the spiritual well that a whole school of worship leaders drew from when they wrote their “Kissy-face with Jesus” worship songs in the 90s.  So in Pike, when he writes ‘she’, I really have trouble discerning if he actually means ‘she’ or if he means ‘he/she’, or if he’s just being ambiguous on purpose.

Of course opponents of using the masculine pronoun exclusively are likely to say that they experienced the same feeling with ‘he.’  There are probably a lot of contexts where a male writer wanted to talk about, say, a random business person, whom he would refer to as ‘he’, since he assumed that the business person in mind probably was a businessman.  But the rules of grammar madeit ambiguous, so he could always turn around and say, “Well of course it could include women as well.  No one is being sexist here.  Women can participate in the world of business the same as men.”  Yet he knew that, well, of course women don’t really participate in business de facto even if they are allowed to do so de jure.  So the ambiguity actually fit his needs fairly well.  But the problem with pushing our modern agenda is that he, himself, never intended a sexist meaning.  In his mind, his use of ‘he’ really had included both genders.  I suspect that the modern pronoun debate leads many readers to assume he was placing more weight on the de facto meaning than he really was.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge that there can be problems.  I am not a fan of political correctness for its own sake, but I am a fan of reducing unnecessary ambiguity.  So, if someone wants to protest that it is unjust to let masculine pronouns be inclusive while feminine pronouns are non-inclusive, then I propose that he or she let both terms be unambiguously non-inclusive in his or her writing — or should I say, her or his writing.  But such bulky wording creates its own problems and is a generally obnoxious way to write.  I just want to write an essay, not make a political statement.  I don’t really care what pronouns I use, I just want to use one and let it do its work.  Is that too much to ask?

In the past few decades linguists have finally figured out that the rules of grammar are second-order descriptions of first-order speech.  In other words, the rules of grammar do not dictate how the language must work; they describe the way the language actually works.  In living languages changes to the grammar must come from within the language-culture itself, not be imposed from the outside.  I remember encountering the self-evident answer back in grade school when the teacher asked us to exchange papers to grade them.  One of my classmates raised his hand and asked, “What if they put such-and-such on their paper?  Should I mark it wrong?”  I remember thinking, “Why did he call the person a ‘they’?  It’s the person sitting right behind him.  He knows she’s a she and not a they.”  But I realized that he phrased the question that way because, theoretically, anyone could have written that answer, and ‘anyone’ is not gender-specific.  The answer for resolving the dilemma was intuitive to my friend.

Now I’m not saying that grade-school kids should set the rules of our grammar.   But what I am saying is that the problem is not a new one.  The culture as a whole has come up with a way to deal with it — a way that is intuitive enough that a grade-schooler can pick it up: we use ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ as singular pronouns.

Therefore, if anyone wants to refer to a non-specific individual using 3rd person plural pronouns, I say they are within their grammatical rights.  Thus I resolve that, as a native English speaker, I have thought through the problem, and I will intentionally choose to use 3rd person plural pronouns in the singular when refering to gender-unspecific individuals.  This is my effort to push our grammar in the direction that makes the most sense.  So be it.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 30, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    I’m with you Ryan!!

    Good post. I particular agreed with you saying, “In the past few decades linguists have finally figured out that the rules of grammar are second-order descriptions of first-order speech. In other words, the rules of grammar do not dictate how the language must work; they describe the way the language actually works. ”

    I wish people understood this about dictionaries too.


  2. June 30, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks Bryan. Rock on.

  3. July 1, 2008 at 8:11 am

    “Yet he knew that, well, of course women don’t really participate in business de facto even if they are allowed to do so de jure.” Are you serious? Are you imagining a business writer 50 years ago?

  4. July 3, 2008 at 11:08 am

    Yvette, okay. Good point. I yield. Consider it an instance of hyperbole. Certainly some women participated in business, but the majority was still male. I don’t know what the percentages were, but I imagine that it was well off from a 50/50 ratio. 90/10 maybe? 75/25? These are just guesses, but whatever it was, I think the overall thrust of my argument still stands.

  5. July 3, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Oh yeah, I get your point. I was just thrown off. I think the error was more on my end instead of reading the “used to be” in the context of the time the essay was written. A modern essay is more p.c. and there is a high percentage of women in business. But yes, your point is excellent.

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