Re: Evolving language or laziness?

Subject: Re: Evolving language or laziness?
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 10:44:00 EST

At 06:38 AM 3/15/96 -0800, you wrote:
>>Time period, Richard, time period. "He" and its variants are Anglo-Saxon,
>>hence extend far back into Anglo history.

>True enough. However, you were talking about changing a basic structure that
>went back that far.

>The convention of using "he" rather than "they" to mean "he or she" doesn't
>go back much farther than the eighteenth century, and it's never caught on
>so completely that you could call it a basic structure. ...RM

>Richard Mateosian Freelance Technical Writer
>srm -at- c2 -dot- org Copyright 1996 Review Editor, IEEE Micro
> All rights reserved President, Berkeley STC

To be strictly accurate, such a usage has been recorded at least since
Shakespeare's time, considerably before the 18th century. And to be even
more accurate, English has used "his" even when the gender was obviously
neuter. In the King James Bible, for example, this usage persists in the
phrase "If the salt has lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?" It
was common early on to use "his" for "its." There are echoes of this in
Shakespeare, too. Milton used the masculine for an indefinite pronoun, as
did Chaucer. I don't know what literature you routinely read, Richard, but
I'd highly recommend these to test the point.

As for never catching on as basic structure, I'd suggest two arguments:
First, that if it hadn't been established, why are authorities grudgingly
saying that we may now use "he or she" or some other construction to get
around it? Why permit alternate constructions to a construction that was
never a construction? And second, more directly, consult any number of
authorities such as Fowler or the Chicago Manual of Style. There are also
references in such works as Science and Technical Writing, a Manual of Style
by Rubens, and the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage by William and
Mary Morris. Indeed, ask any college grammarian.

The fact is that in trying to avoid the use of the masculine pronoun, we're
severely bending an ancient rule of construction. That isn't in doubt. The
only issue on the table is whether or not it's worth doing to soothe the
ruffled feathers of an offended few. My stand is "no." It's not worth
further twisting an already notoriously imprecise mechanism, just to make a
portion of the population feel better. And it's also my stance that worrying
overmuch about such linguistic matters is a sign that we're not addressing
the more immediate, pressing and deleterious problems.

Tim Altom
Vice President
Simply Written, Inc.
317.899.5882 (voice)
317.899.5987 (fax)

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