'Every executive ... his responsibilities'
Language that pigeonholes people seems to be retiring quietly. Some of it, anyway. But must we heave, this instant, words and links we've come to need? A growing crowd sees the problem in so-called sexist language. The solutions offered differ. This keeps some natural allies at arm's length.Skip to next paragraph
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Take just one form, the ''generic he'': ''Every executive must be aware of his responsibility.''
See that little ''his''?
Natural linkups that might hint of primal order - ''he'' commands, ''she'' complies - may lie too deep to uproot. In the effort to get at them, is it each person for themself? Many who would buy the notion cannot abide that grammar.
Albert Joseph in his grammar guide, along with others, points to the way that's now widespread: ''Every executive must be aware of his or her responsibilities.'' Or having a noun and its pronoun both plural.
On marrying singular and plural, however, Mr. Joseph places a ban: ''Every ... their ....'' He pounces on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) for ''recommending'' the pattern.
''Once poor grammar is endorsed for special situations,'' he asks, ''where does it stop? Who decides if a situation is special enough?This academic permissiveness is an invitation to the 'anything goes' attitude in language usage.''
The English teachers' group, in fact, only proposes an ''every ... their'' twist, as one way among many to help lick the problem. The council does not suggest it for formal situations.
''It's not the option I would choose,'' the NCTE's deputy executive director, Charles Suhor, said in a telephone interview, ''but there are many ways to avoid it.'' The council, like Albert, offers creative guidelines, especially for use in its own textbooks and other publications.
Mr. Suhor notes that ''as language evolves along lines that serve human needs - it isn't always 'logical' - (various) nonstandard usage becomes acceptable to the purists; ingrained.
''Who's to say that a change like 'every ... their' is not another acceptable evolution?'' That form was once common.
Albert Joseph's guide calls ''the infamous generic he ... utterly unthinkable.'' The NCTE, however, recognizes that the jury is still out on the various options for nonsexist writing.
For many a writer and editor and speaker, even though fair-minded, a generic is a needed concept. ''He'' is seen as ''Everyman,'' not just every man. And ''man,'' used generically - not as pro-genitor'' - is simply a compound, uniting male and female, their qualities distinct but neither sex having a corner on certain ones.
Surely a language of truth and grace has ample room, among its terms of endearment, for ''all mankind'' - even ''dolls'' 'n ''guys'' and ''kids'' sometimes, along with the pronoun ''Thy.''
So, too, ''A person ... he'' can be crucial in a corner to give natural flow instead of a parade of ''he and she,'' ''herself and himself.'' And applying ''he or she'' by rote can strain the quality of equality.
Geoffrey Nunberg, a language researcher at Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information, says that ''I stick with he as an impersonal pronoun, except where sex neutrality is important.'' In ''The Decline of Grammar,'' a recent argument in The Atlantic Monthly for a ''middle way between permissiveness and traditionalism,'' Dr. Nunberg alludes to ''good syntactic reasons for my choice....''
Nunberg concedes, however, that ''grammar can only excuse my usage, not justify it, and all its arguments are irrelevant for people who have decided to go with the use of they on the grounds that he is sexist. As (H.W.) Fowler maintained, matters of conscience must take precedence.''
And Mary-Claire Van Leunen, in her ''Handbook for Scholars,'' says: ''Rather than play hob with the language, we feminists might adopt the position of pitying men for being forced to share their pronouns around.''
The case rests. One hopes, however, that someone who still needs the generic he aboard his ship of statement can jolly well have it.