Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Bad Language: Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and the English gendered-pronouns problem

As far as grammatical problems go — and indeed problems of sexual inequality — this one's pretty rare in that almost everyone who uses English as their first spoken language is aware of it.

Perhaps an even higher proportion of second-language speakers are aware of it; it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

For those who don't make grammar a hobby, this is the problem:

You know when you talk hypothetically about "a person", and that person usually ends up being male? Yeah. That's the problem. It's sexism by convenience, and the best solution anyone's come up with thus far is the one most of us — consciously or otherwise — fall back on: pluralising said hypothetical individual.

This means he or she (more on that later) becomes "they". And everyone knows "they" is (ahem, are) plural. There are more than one of them.

So when you're in an important business meeting (as I frequently am) and somebody starts a sentence with "When a customer signs up to our website to make a purchase ..." chances are they'll finish it with something like, "They'll leave and never come back." Depending on how good their website is.

If they finish with "He'll ..." chances are someone will pick them up on their use of needlessly gendered (AKA sexist) language. Even if they're not doing so in earnest. This linguistic point is so well-known as to be more-or-less impossible for even the least-interested individual to let slip. Even if you just want to get one over on a colleague/friend/enemy. Even if you are just a mainstream pedant.

So what do you say instead? Well some people deliberately use "she" by way of trying to address millennia of sexual inequality. This is fine in the instances where the hypothetical person is demonstrably likelier to be female; as it would be completely justifiable to use "he" if the reverse were true. But you can't fight millennia of fire with fire. And "fine" and "justifiable" still aren't synonymous with "ideal". I don't want any hypothetical individual, who represents a wider group to which there's any chance I might belong, represented using a pronoun gendered to a sex to which I definitely don't belong. Thank you very much. And not because I'm hyper-sensitive or difficult; it's just because there's no real need for it. It's stupid.

You could say "he or she" instead, but it sounds arch and clumsy, and it still puts men first. You could say "she or he", or you could switch between the two. But someone might hear you use just one and misunderstand your motives, or — worse yet — someone might have to listen to you he-sheing and/or she-heing your way through a PowerPoint presentation (or a relationship problem) to the point that you actually annoy that person to death. Somebody might be friends with you and witness it regularly and decide not to be friends with you.

You can avoid the linguistic construct entirely if you like. There is no utterly necessary occasion where it simply has to be used; where a decision between he, she and they simply has to be taken. (I guarantee you I could rewrite any such imagined instance you're burdened with. For ten pounds.) But — this hot, gendered potato aside — it's a completely fine and often quite useful sentence structure. There's no sense in culling it like a septic badger.

Chris Grayling: or was it? (Or were they?)
It rears its head almost daily, but I heard a very pointed example this morning on the radio. A Tory MP who may or may not have been the justice secretary Chris Grayling was being interviewed on the news section of BBC 6Music. (Or his interview was being broadcast there at any rate.)

He was talking about new laws that would allow home-owners to stab, skin, slice and dice burglars — and cook them in a stew, or what have you. There was some typically vague legal term like "proportionate force" or "reasonable force", just to give judges a creative way to ensure lots of poor people, and no rich people, end up in prison as a result of this. (Right, comrades?)

The Tory began the recorded section of his interview by referring to the imagined hypothetical home-owner with a male pronoun: "he". A voice in his ear, either real or imagined, started furiously remonstrating with him about how old, white, rich and sexist he would no doubt appear if he finished the sentence in the same way; and by the next time grammar dictated he had to reach for a pronoun he picked "they".

Before spin or good sense could save him, the Tory accidentally, and in a half-arsed way, implied all home-owners likely to be provoked to using reasonable force to defend their domiciles from ruffians were men. He probably meant all home-owners. Indeed, he probably meant everyone. That's how grammar used to work, you see.

Yes, in the Tory's defence  "he" was officially endorsed — not just tolerated — as the hypothetical pronoun of choice for just over a hundred years. And before that if language wasn't being sexist it was only because people hadn't had the time to think of ways in which it could be, what with all the plague and cholera and witch-burning and everything. This "solution" to the problem was called The Universal He, putting one in mind of such archetypes of masculinity as He-Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, I don't bloody know, Greg Rusedski.

But linguistic philosophy and second-wave feminism put paid to this in the twentieth century — some while after the average Tory MP studied grammar at Eton. I guess the crux of the combined arguments is that our language is largely geared toward representing men, and concealing women. And that even though it's only language, this has an effect on how we view the world, especially as we acquire the language as small innocent gendered or genderless children. If every hypothetical person is male, every significant person must surely be male too. This is the point in the argument at which certain types of person (many male, but not all) raise objections. But they didn't read this far anyway, so never mind them*.

The plural pronouns employed to indicate the hypothetical dissenters in the last sentence of the previous paragraph are valid, as the sentences are constructed (not contrived) to discuss people in the plural, not one hypothetical individual from a greater mass. This is one tactic for dealing with the issue.

The MP could have said something along the lines of: home-owners have the right to defend their estates from marauding chavs with as many balls as they can let fly from their multitudinous cannon. but for some reason people like the hypothetical one to be singular. It seems to have more clout; perhaps because the listener can imagine itself being that "he or she"? MPs love pretending to talk to individuals as much as they hate actually having to do it. I guess this is why my own proposal — no doubt offered many times in the past, even perhaps by greater grammarians than I** — hasn't yet caught on.

My proposal was soft-launched in the middle of the previous paragraph, indicated italicisedunderlined, and in bold, and it amounts to no less than using "it" and "its" instead of he, her, his, her, they, theirs.

Why don't we do this already? Well, because "it" is a pronoun reserved for non-human objects (boxes, breadbaskets and strap-ons), intangible concepts (love, rheumatism and ornateness), and — apparently — "lower animals", like (presumably) moss piglets, spider mites and chow chows.

People would be affronted if you referred to them as "it", possibly even more so than if you referred to them using the opposite gender to which you declare affiliation. Indeed "it" is also reserved pejoratively for people of indeterminate gender who do not deserve — in the creatively nasty grammar-abuser's imagined world — a definite gendered pronoun.

I know this from experience; not because I have personally made the effort or put in the thought to be confident in describing myself as "transgender", but because sometimes — usually when you're a teenager, and at your most vulnerable — people feel the need to make such decisions for you.

Yes, having frequently being referred to in my beardless formative years with such linguistic stews as "that man-woman thing that sits on the window ledge," I've thought about the reality of being described as "it" for a long time. And I quite like it.

"It" is genderless, unsaddled, and therefore wild. If a horse is a higher animal, and spends its days for the most part toff-ridden — being ridden by toffs — that's a privilege I can forgo. Indeed, I haven't looked this up, but I'm pretty sure most of these alleged "higher animals" are afforded their status not by any kind of special power they possess (see moss piglets), but by centuries of selfless service to humans: either by carrying us into battle, fetching our pipes and slippers, or displaying traits we seek to emulate. Probably masculine traits. (I'm taking a pitch at lions being included here.)

If you're happier for your gender (or someone else's which is not your own) to be included as information in a sentence where it doesn't need to be, than you are for your solidarity with lower animals, non-human objects and intangible concepts to be made apparent in that same sentence, then I have no place for you on my Christmas card list.

I ask you: are you truly more inclined to align yourself with He-Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, I don't bloody know, Greg Rusedski — or indeed their exact female counterparts: She-Ra, Minnie Driver and, I don't bloody know, Maria Sharapova — than you are to buddy up with moss piglets, rheumatism and breadbaskets? Why, you idiot?

I guess this is where we spare a few words for the currently-thought-correct plural pronoun "they/their". This option, deemed the hazily inoffensive neutral-ground by the faceless masses of the political-correctness-resigned bastard public, is the worst of the bunch.

Why? Because it's grammatically a non-starter. It's stupid. I don't care if Shakespeare used it. As if that's a bloody argument anyway; he couldn't even spell his own name the same twice. He was an unrestrained loon, and no gatekeeper of Good English.

So use "it"; "it" is the only right and proper pronoun for this use.

Alternatively, use "the fool".

As in, if a baker charges sixteen pence for a baker's dozen of jam doughnuts, how much does the fool charge for a regular non-baker's dozen?

Now before you get all creatively critical about how many bakers own the concept of not being able to count properly, we're not talking about apostrophes today. And you can pretty much guarantee that about 90% of men and women (and bakers) are fools, but you can never — without revealing yourself to be a massive sexist — guess how many people are male, or female, or can transform themselves in the duration of a sentence from being one or the other (or both) into being an indeterminate number of "people" in the plural.

Only X-Factor's Multiple Man can do that. And he's pretty freaking gendered.

The end.


Alexander V

Images free or copyright-free.

* It's a similar point to that which politely suggests a newspaper regularly showing famous sportspeople, businessmen and politicians — mostly male, especially the "businessmen" — alongside almost-completely-naked teenage girls is not a newspaper that is symptomatic of, or even helps works toward, a sexually equal society.

** I'm pretty sure this is a joke, because probably that ought to say "me". If indeed I was accidentally right to use "I" then please ignore my mistake and take the joke in the spirit it was meant: smugness.

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