Re: Checking assumptions at the door? (Take II)

Subject: Re: Checking assumptions at the door? (Take II)
From: bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 04 Jun 2001 10:15:26 -0700

"Hart, Geoff" wrote:

> While you're right that a growing number of people question the use of "he"
> as a universal pronoun, usage is defined by what you see and hear most often
> in the media (print and electronic), not by what editors and writers would
> like to see. And the simple fact is that despite the increasingly common
> advice to use gender-neutral writing that you'll see in most modern style
> guides, you'll still see "he" more often than "they" in a wide variety of
> publication types. This may have changed by the time we both retire, but as
> of now, it's still the status quo in the vast majority of what I read.
> Please note that I do _not_ defend this status quo; I simply report it.

Maybe I have different reading tastes than you; I see more variation
than you seem to.

One good sign of the times is always the newspaper style guides, since
journalists are usually concerned to sound current. My copies are a
couple of years old, but they favor a genderless impersonal pronoun.

> With the exception of France, where the Academie Francaise strives in vain
> to exert its monopolistic control over the French language, that's _exactly_
> how language works. There is no agency involved, unless by "agency" you mean
> "a means of transmission of change". If that's the case, then the agency for
> change is using a style so successfully that other authors begin to take it
> up and eventually it becomes the default on which all new writers pattern
> their own styles.

So where does official grammar come from? Why is proper English the
language spoken by elites, such as Oxford or Harvard graduates, instead
of what's spoken in the poorer parts of Oakland? Influence and media
access give a good deal of control. To imagine that language just
happens is to ignore an extremely complex set of relations.

> <<In fact, language always reflects the concerns and the assumptions of
> whoever is using it.>>
> Which is why those of us who care about this issue can affect change simply
> by changing the way we write--and for those of us with influence, by
> changing the style guides that other writers consult when they write.

Which is also why language doesn't just happen. Even if you don't
consciously try to determine the shape of language, you unconsciously
shape it.

> I'd be surprisd if the use of "he" dates back only to the 18th century, but
> that's picking nits;

Be surprised. Be very surprised :-).

I'm not saying that it was never used before then, but that was a time
when written and oral languages became sharply divided by a number of
arbitrary rules (don't split the infinitive, a double negative becomes a
positive, "he" means everyone). Before then, "they" appears with equal
or greater frequency.

I don't have an OED handy to confirm this. What's
> important is that you've described why "he" is still the default for most
> writers: enough of the older writing style remains in broad use (and
> particularly in schools that still teach "the classics")

It's worth pointing out that the classics are often modernized for
classroom use - that is, edited to be more in line with official

You're right that we don't differ in opinion so much as in our view of
the mechanics of linguistic change, but, at the risk of nitpicking, I
think that a worthwhile discussion. Writers should think about these
matters, and too often they don't.

Bruce Byfield 604.421.7177 bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com

"He did like the ladies, the rise and the fall
Of their ankles and dresses out on the dance floor,
The roll of the dice, the turn of the wheel,
But he took most delight in those slip jigs and reels."
-House Band, "Slip Jigs and Reels"


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Checking assumptions at the door? (Take II): From: Hart, Geoff

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