March 02, 2008

Lying feminist ideologues wreck English, says Yale prof

The danger when encountering a misogynist prescriptive grammar rant as extreme as the one just published by David Gelernter in the Weekly Standard (vol. 13 no. 24, 03/03/2008) is that one might get as angry and fired up and beyond reason as he is. That would be a pity. I will try to remain calm (it's not exactly my forte, though I have occasionally tried it). The right reaction for this one is sadness rather than indignation. Gelernter is a distinguished computer scientist at Yale; yet here he makes a complete fool of himself.

His claims are apocalyptic. Although English "used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers" it has now been taken over by "arrogant ideologues" determined "to defend the borders of the New Feminist state." A major "victory of propaganda over common sense" looms: "We have allowed ideologues to pocket a priceless property and walk away with it." The language is on the brink of being lost, because although the "prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise", today "virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite". This is the mild part. Soon he gets more seriously worked up, calling his opponents "style-smashers" and (I'm not kidding) "language rapists", and claiming that "they were lying and knew it" when they did what they did.

What, then, is the terrible thing that the style-smashers have done? The following is (and I stress this) a complete list of all the facts about English usage he cites:

  • Some writers now use either he or she, or singular they, or purportedly sex-neutral she, instead of purportedly sex-neutral he, to refer back to generic or quantified human antecedents that are not specifically marked as masculine.
  • Some people recommend the words chairperson, humankind, and firefighter over chairman, mankind, and fireman.
  • Some try to avoid using the phrases great man when speaking of a great person, or using brotherhood when making reference to fellow-feeling between human beings.

That's it; we're done. That is the totality of the carnage to which he directs our attention, the sum of all his evidence that we have "allowed ideologues to wreck the English language".

Gelernter insists on the beauty and clarity of "Shakespeare's most perfect phrases", calling them "miraculously simple and terse"; and of course he raves about E. B. White ("our greatest modern source of the purest, freshest, clearest, most bracing English, straight from a magic spring that bubbled for him alone"), and about Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, "justly revered as the best thing of its kind", where it is claimed that purported sex-neutral he ("a student who lost his textbook") "has no pejorative connotations; it is never incorrect." White's claim seems to me quite untrue. Consider how weird this sounds:

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?

Why would it sound so weird if forms of the pronoun he could be sex-neutral? They can't. He is purely masculine in reference. The claim that it can be sex-neutral is not in accord with the facts. Plenty of people have noted and illustrated this. Cathy Kessel points out to me that when William Safire advocated saying Everyone should watch his pronoun agreement, one C. Badendyck wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times Magazine suggesting this example for consideration:

The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day.

(This is quoted in pp. 45-46 of the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing [2nd edition, Harpercollins, 1988] by Casey Miller and Kate Swift, two authors whom Gelernter would hate.) That last his doesn't sound too good, does it? Yet clearly the average American is without any definite gender semantically. The problem is that forms of the masculine pronoun, like garments such as pantyhose, do have definite gender associations. Badendyck is right, Safire is wrong, and Gelernter is wrong.

Gelernter huffs and puffs a lot about the use of he or she, but this is only a prelude to something more serious: a furious condemnation of singular antecedents for they ("a student who lost their textbook"). In his telling of the story, the feminist language terrorists weren't content with imposing he or she on us, a phrase that is merely clumsy; worse was to come when grammar itself "collapsed in a heap after agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional", i.e., they was permitted to have singular antecedents.

But his ignorance of the history of English literature on this point is breathtaking. It is quite clear that he has no idea Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents (I discussed a couple of examples here).

Gelernter also specifically singles out Austen for praise: "The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written "pure simple English." He obviously is not aware that Jane Austen is famous for her high frequency of use of of singular-anteceded they (Henry Churchyard has a list of examples here).

Gelernter thinks singular they was invented by post-1970 feminist "ideologues", rather than a use of pronouns having a continuous history going back as far as a thousand years. One might think it remarkable that someone this ignorant of the history and structure of English would nonetheless presume to pontificate, without having checked anything. But not if you read Language Log. We have noted many times the tendency to move straight to high dudgeon, skipping right over the stage where you check the reference books to make sure you have something to be in high dudgeon about. To take a random example, when Cullen Murphy accused three word-sense usages of being modern illiteratisms, Mark Liberman showed that in fact all three were the original meanings from long ago. And then a couple of months later Mark found John Powers had made an exactly analogous mistake with three other words. People just don't look in reference books when it comes to language; they seem to think their status as writers combined with their emotion of anger gives them all the standing they need.

No, it is not Gelernter's high indignation-to-expertise ratio that amazes me, but his unbelievable level of anger. The "language rapists" have deliberately destroyed our native tongue and people's ability to write it, he claims: "The well-aimed torpedo of Feminist English has sunk the whole process of teaching students to write... we used to expect every educated citizen to write decently--and that goal is out the window." Education has been ruined: "we graduate class after class of young Americans who will never be able to write down their thoughts effectively". The whole United States has been ruined: "the country is filling up gradually with people who have been reared on ugly, childish writing and will never expect anything else".

I'd like to assume that intellectual content can speak for itself rather than having to be diagnosed ad hominem as a symptom of broader personal character, but I found it hard to read Gelernter without reflecting on the fact that in 1993 he became one of the victims of a deranged terrorist, 'Unabomber' Ted Kaczynski; he was badly injured by a letter bomb and suffered permanent damage to his right hand and eye. I found myself wondering whether his very understandable rage against protesters who favor violence was bubbling up and infecting his attitude toward women, progressivism, political correctness, students, everything.

Some kind of explanation is needed, surely. The entire linguistic and educational system built up by a nation of 300 million people cannot be in danger of being flushed down the toilet because of a commonplace, centuries-old practice of occasionally and optionally using a plural-reference pronoun with a morphosyntactically singular quantified or indefinite-reference antecedent, can it?

[Hat tip: Thanks to Paul Postal for pointing me to the article.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 2, 2008 06:15 PM