Arguments Against Gender Neutral Language
by Tom Radcliffe
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe
In response to Does the Term 'Man' Include All Human Beings? -- OR -- Are Women Men? by Carolyn Ray
Gender-neutral language is a way of speaking or writing that ensures that individuals of indefinite sex are referred to as individuals of indefinite sex. While not strictly neutral, language that alternates between use of masculine and feminine pronouns is a reasonable way of approximating gender-neutrality in some cases, and will be counted as gender-neutral for the purposes of this essay.
The claim is advanced by proponents of gender-neutral language that use of "man", "he", "his" and "him", which I will refer to henceforth as "masculine pronouns", cannot properly be taken to include women. Carolyn Ray, in her essay Does the Term 'Man' Include All Human Beings? -- OR -- Are Women Men?, says:
It is often claimed that the word 'man' encompasses both sexes and that everyone knows this and is used to it. School children allegedly take it in stride, adding it to their lists of English oddities without batting an eye. If the slower children don't learn it in grade school, they certainly pick it up as they grow up.
Proponents of gender-neutral language believe this claim is at best based on wishful thinking, that it reflects not an oddity of the English language but a form of sexual discrimination. They claim that the uses of masculine pronouns that conform to this strange rule are so rare as to be negligible, and that in both intent and effect most uses of masculine pronouns refer dominantly or exclusively to persons of the male gender.
In this essay I examine Ray's argument, and then various counter-arguments that have been raised over the past ten years or so in the online community to the use of gender-neutral language. My purpose is to build the strongest argument possible against gender-neutrality, and see if it stands up to scrutiny. First, a few words about "gender".
I will in this essay use the terms "gender" and "sex" interchangeably. The first meaning of "gender" in the OED2 is "kind", and certainly this makes it an appropriate term for sex, because the two sexes are amongst the basic kinds of humanity. Webster's 9th New Collegiate Dictionary gives "sex" as the first meaning of gender, giving a reference to usage by Charles Dickens. So I take it as uncontroversial that in ordinary, non-ideologically-loaded English "gender" means "sex." The 1941 edition of Roget's thesaurus gives "gender" and "sex" and "kin" as synonyms, and the Nelson's "Highroads" English Dictionary, a conservative dictionary used in some Canadian schools in the 1920's and '30's gives the definition of "gender" as "class as regards to sex".
Let us therefore dismiss any claim that "gender" and "sex" are not to be interchanged freely, or that "gender" only applies to the grammatical gender of words rather than the gender of people. Grammatical gender is given as the second meaning of "gender" in all but one of the dictionaries I have consulted; the first meaning always has to do with sex. The lone exception is the OED2, which gives "kind" as the first meaning.
Older editions of the OED cite slightly different usage, but of course as the philosophy of the OED is descriptive rather than prescriptive it would be contradictory to cite it as an authority against current usage. It is interesting that older editions of the OED suggest that using "gender" to mean "sex" is chiefly jocular--this suggests that more prescriptive dictionaries, such the the Nelson's "Highroads", which was intended for school-children in the province of British Columbia, where nurturing English culture and maintaining strong ties to the Empire was an important activity, were preserving the usage of Dickens and his contemporaries past its active life. Perhaps the OED cataloged the decline of this usage, which has resurged in recent decades. The ebb and flow of a living language is never simple, and we do well to bear this in mind when considering the legitimacy of gender-neutral language.
The early 20th century's nominal authority on language, H.W. Fowler, whose Modern English Usage is an attempt to codify the single proper way to use the most widely spoken language in the world--a worthy effort for a century that saw the rise of authoritarian global powers--insists against all evidence that "gender" is a grammatical term only, unless used jokingly to refer to sex. As Fowler is the sole dissenting authority, and is not reporting on actual usage but on his own beliefs about what usage ought to be, and is in any case three-quarters of a century out of date and writing for a time when women were only just recently allowed to vote, we can neglect him with impunity. It is worth noting that Fowler was the editor of the The Concise Oxford Dictionary and The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, and his unusual insistence on "gender" not meaning "sex" may reflect a cultural prejudice against this usage in the small community of scholars he belonged to.
Language is a tool of thought. If our tools are ill-suited to the job, we will have a harder time doing the job well, and thinking is a job that is known to be difficult. It behooves us to make our language as clear and unambiguous as possible.
Gender equality--equality of rights under the law and equality of treatment as human beings except where our sex has some biological or personal relevance--is a reality many people would like to bring about. As such, our language should reflect this. And this is an ideological matter, because it is a social reality we are talking about, which is malleable and open to choice. By changing our language we are to some extent directly manipulating that social reality. That is part of the point, and one of the paradoxes of socially constructed realities: by changing our language we help change reality in a way that makes our language more accurate.
Opposition to gender-neutral language comes in two forms. One is opposition to the premise that all people ought to be treated equally under the law and expect equality of treatment as human beings except where sex is biologically or personally relevant. I take this view to be absurd to the point of not worth arguing against. Although there are statistically significant differences in capability, outlook and behavior between women and men that I believe reflect physiological differences, it is also the case that for any given characteristic the distributions of women and men overlap substantially. For example, although women are on average physically weaker than men, for most women there are lots of men weaker than she is. Although there are more violent men than women, the vast majority of men are much less violent than the most violent women.
Given this huge overlap of characteristics, there is no possible justification for the existence of social institutions that treat women and men as significantly different in cases where their basic biological differences don't come into play. So far as I know, those basic biological difference only really come into play in the delivery room.
The other form of opposition to gender-neutral language is the one I address in this essay. It is the claim that masculine pronouns are gender neutral, and that's just one of the quirks of the English language that up with which we have to put. It is this position that Ray's argument takes aim at.
Ray's argument has a very narrow scope. It considers the claim that "man" is a generic term. The argument is:
My contention in the present essay is simply that the use of the term 'man' as a generic term subsuming all persons is conceptually inaccurate.A moment's reflection on even the simplest examples will show the force of Ray's position.
There are certain tests we can use to determine whether one concept is broader than another one and subsumes all of the concretes which fall under the narrower one. There is a relationship, in English, between concept hierarchies and the 'is' of predic ation. To put it more plainly, if an object falls under a concept, I must be able to use the construction
________ is a ________
P is a Z.
If everything I know about the language and about reality forbid me to use this construction with the word 'man,' the claim that 'man' is a broader concept which subsumes all individual human beings is a spurious one.
A car is a vehicle.
A woman is a man.
A surgeon is a doctor.
One of these sentences is not like the others. And we might reasonably ask, "If 'man' is a generic term, including both women and men, why is it that we can't use it as such?"
Ray's essay has stimulated some discussion on newsgroups, and a number of counter-arguments have been raised. My purpose here is to try to formulate each one of them with as much force as possible and see if they stand up to scrutiny. I begin by examining the taxonomy of counter-arguments.
There are three different forks counter-arguments take:
These most directly address motives for wanting to change our language in the first place, so I'll present them first.
As I have clearly admitted, advocacy of gender-neutral language is part of a larger ideological orientation toward sexual equality. I do not know of anyone who advocates the use of gender-neutral language who does not also believe in the value of social and in some cases legal reforms that enhance the level of equality between women and men.
It is also true that some feminists are clearly seekers of power, who wish to harness the good will many people feel toward the goal of gender equality to their own ends. And some of those ends are extremely unsavory to those of us who value freedom and the rights of the individual.
By adopting gender-neutral language we are therefore playing into the hands of these "gender feminists" as they are sometimes called in the individualist feminist community. We really don't need to examine the merits of the case--all we need to know is that it helps a cause we are vehemently opposed to.
Therefore, because accepting gender-neutral language allies us with gender feminists, we should not use gender-neutral language.
A similar argument has impeded research in evolutionary theory for a century. For many decades any disagreement between evolutionists was seen as a crack in the wall that would let the forces of creationism sweep over the field. Darwinian orthodoxy reigned supreme not because it was universally the best explanation, but because of a lack of vigorous debate between members of the Darwinian community, for fear of inadvertently aiding and abetting the enemy.
After a century, the creationists have still not gone away, and it is clear that they never will, as their creed is one of faith rather than science. So evolutionists have finally come out of their box and started slugging it out merrily with each other in the best scientific tradition.
This suggests that behaving with mock solidarity in the face of an irrational enemy is a bad thing to do. Simply because open debate on the merits of alternative approaches to evolution by variation and natural selection might have helped the creationist cause did not mean that it wouldn't have helped the evolutionist cause a whole lot more by bringing to the community a greater depth of insight and a broader understanding of the truth.
So let it be with gender feminism. There are many things I do that will probably aid gender feminists in one way or another--for example, gender feminists are frequently supporters of homosexual rights, as am I. I would consider it utterly dishonourable to not speak up for the rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals simply because gender feminists might agree with me.
I see no grounds for letting the irrationality of others dominate my own behavior, which is what this argument amounts to. The fact remains that if gender-neutral language is epistemologically appropriate, it is epistemologically appropriate no matter who advocates it. And the fact that it is epistemologically appropriate is not disputed by this argument--all that is done is to cast aspersions on the motives of some advocates of gender-neutral language. But, as the example of evolution versus creationism shows, the fact that your opponents would like something does not make it a bad thing to do, and refraining from doing something that's good for you because it would also have some speculative benefit for a group you oppose is a very weak argument indeed.
Although hardly anyone today believes men are inherently more human than women, it is a doctrine that has been widely held in the past. The twentieth century has seen a mostly successful struggle in the developed world to redress the problem of women being treated as second-class citizens. The preceding millennia saw a much longer struggle for women to be acknowledged as citizens at all.
Perhaps our fore-bearers, including many women amongst them, had it right. Maybe women really are inferior, and so should not be accorded equal respect in language or law as men.
Recent history has seen women move successfully into a vast range of traditionally male-dominated areas without notable difficulty. Women doctors heal the sick, women lawyers try cases, women governors govern... all with as much duplicity, corruption and incompetence as men in the same professions. As pointed out above, there is simply no empirical basis for the claim that individual women cannot do anything as well or badly as any man. This is not a matter of speculation or statistical manipulation, but of fact. As such, any claim that there are any significant social roles other than giving birth and breast-feeding that differentiate men and women is lacking in justification.
There is a variant of this argument given by Fowler in Modern English Usage. The entry "Feminine Designations" makes the claim that such terms as "authoress" should be used to distinguish the sex of individuals. Given the irrelevance of sex to the performance of the vast majority of tasks, and the availability of other cues in most cases when there is some importance to the sex of an individual doing a job, some justification for this distinction seems required. We would not think is appropriate to have a separate term for an oriental lawyer or African doctor, as color of skin is irrelevant to their tasks. Likewise, given the irrelevance of sex to the vast majority of what individual humans do, having sex-specific terms for them is pointless and awkward, to us. To Fowler, embedded in a thoroughly sex-stereotyped society, it would probably have mattered a great deal whether he was going to see a doctor or a doctoress. To us, one hopes, it makes no difference at all.
In contrast with the ideologues who put forward the arguments considered above, there are people who sincerely believe that the use of masculine pronouns is justified as a form of gender-neutral language based on historical usage or epistemological criteria. In some cases, artistic criteria are introduced as well, as will be discussed more fully in the next section. This section deals with appeals to linguistic tradition and to empirical claims about how masculine pronouns work in the human mind.
English speakers have used "man" and "he" to designate persons of indefinite sex for hundreds of years. "What a piece of work is man!" wrote Shakespeare. Mark Twain said, "If you take a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the difference between a dog and a man."
Languages represent the collective intelligence of the people who speak them, the adaptive brilliance of millions of people across hundreds of years. We change such things at our peril--there were reasons this usage was adopted, and we shouldn't just dismiss it out of hand. We are throwing away a great legacy of the past, that served our fore-bearers well.
Furthermore, by insisting on this sort of radical, unnatural change in the language, we are making it harder to read the works of our fore-bearers--their use of "man" and "he" now clashes to the modern ear. This is part and parcel of a process of willfully cutting ourselves off from past usage.
Languages are living things, and just as the speakers of languages learn and change so do the languages they speak. And as reality, particularly our rapidly changing social reality, changes around them, speakers of languages change the languages they speak to accurately represent the reality they find before them.
English is full of obsolete terms that have fallen out of usage because the realities they describe are no longer with us. No one laments the decline in usage of fine old terms like "firken", because the reality they represent (in this case, a small barrel used to hold hops or salted fish) is hardly ever encountered. And neologisms such as "computer" applied to a machine rather than a person abound, because there's so much new stuff around us, and we want to be able to talk about it and think about it with ease and accuracy.
Social reality has changed in step with technological reality--women's emancipation was starting to be discussed seriously in the English-speaking world at about the same time that Babbage was starting to consider mechanical computation, and both ideas came to fruition a century and a half later. Given the huge changes in the language of technology, we might expect that there will be similar changes in the language of society.
Beyond this, the question must be asked: did anyone ever really mean "both men and women" when they said "man"? There are certainly people who have claimed this usage, and perhaps in some contexts they themselves have used the term this way. But it appears to be fairly rare, and in any given period one can find usage that suggests that English-speakers have always been ambivalent about the claim that masculine pronouns can be used in a gender-neutral way.
For example, the quote from Hamlet introduced above continues at greater length (Act II, Scene II):
What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!As none of these characteristics pertain to sex, we might find it plausible to think that Hamlet is speaking of all human beings, not just male ones. But he continues:
And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not--no, nor woman neither...It's clear that in this case, speaking only of characteristics that are shared equally by both sexes, Shakespeare, writing around 1600, was thinking exclusively of male human beings--he was using "man" in a context that is gender free if any is, and yet he was deliberately restricting his usage to refer only to the males of the species. One might argue that this was done for comedic effect in the subsequent by-play with Rosencrantz, and that would prove the point nicely: English speakers in Shakespeare's time were at best ambivalent about the generic use of the term "man". Had they not been, the humor would have been lost.
To take a somewhat later author, Henry Fielding, we find him saying in Tom Jones (Book Four, Chapter 5):
Poor Sophia was charmed too; but in a very different way. her sensations, however, the reader's heart (if he or she have any) will better represent than I can...It is curious that Fielding--who wrote in the mid-1700's, a hundred and fifty years after Shakespeare--would feel he needed to say "he or she" if he and his audience were both firmly convinced that "he" was gender-neutral.
Other examples can be found from other periods, though to introduce more here would tax my scholarship and your patience. Modern usage is of course rich with examples of real live English speakers treating masculine pronouns as masculine pronouns, either for reasons of sexual politics or for equally sound epistemological reasons. For it is clear that ambivalence about such an important matter is not something any clear-thinking person would want to continue, and ambivalence is the very best case that can be made out of the historical record.
So far from cutting ourselves off from historical usage, we are likely to bring ourselves closer to it in the many cases where it is fairly clear that authors used "man" to mean "male humans" and nothing else. Given this, it should not be surprising that older works will cause a bit of cognitive dissonance, as the authors clearly lived in a world very different than our own, and it is worth being reminded of that.
It is further worth noting that the historical usage of masculine pronouns as gender neutral is recent and artificial: it was established formally by an Act of Parliament in England in 1850. According to Carolyn Jacobson at the University of Pennsylvania (http://www.english.upenn.edu/~cjacobso/gender.html):
"He" started to be used as a generic pronoun by grammarians who were trying to change long-established tradition of using they as a singular pronoun. In 1850 an Act of Parliament gave official sanction to the recently invented concept of the "generic" he. In the language used in acts of Parliament, the new law said, "words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females." Although similar language in contracts and other legal documents subsequently helped reinforce this grammatical edict in all English-speaking countries, it was often conveniently ignored. In 1879, for example, a move to admit female physicians to the all-male Massachusetts Medical society was effectively blocked on the grounds that the society's by-laws describing members used the pronoun he.
This suggests that historical usage was never the uniform monolith that proponents of this argument would make it.
While it is true that many examples can be given of masculine pronouns being used in an exclusively gendered way in recent times, it is also true that many English speakers use them in non-gendered ways in some contexts. This is simply a matter of empirical fact. To argue otherwise is to deny reality.
Gender-neutral language has at its root an unabashedly ideological intent: to clearly and accurately capture in language a world where men and women are of equal social and legal status, fully recognized as human beings. To use the term for one sex as the term for both is an ambiguity we can live without. The purpose of language is thought, and clarity in thought requires clarity in language, and most people will tell you that when the term "man" is used the masculine referent is what first comes to mind.
Ray's argument is essentially an attack on this ambiguity, and demonstrates the implausibility of the claim that gender-neutral use of masculine pronouns is a satisfactory solution to the problem of representing reality in language.
Oddly, at least one purported counter-argument to Ray's argument has been raised which claims that in the cases she cites there is simply a tendency, for whatever reason, for the mind to select a masculine exemplar. The curious thing about thing about this claim is why anyone would think that this is a counter-argument, for it demonstrates Ray's point exactly. People mostly use "man" to mean "male human beings", so much so that even in contexts where one might think the usage was generic, it is in fact gendered.
Concepts and Images
We must distinguish clearly between concepts and images. The claim in the argument above is that somehow the use of the term "man" causes an image of a male human being to form in our consciousness, and so we are drawn toward the gendered use of the term.
This argument is a straw person. There is nothing in the argument that depends on the term "man" in any way being associated with an image. Ray's argument in particular makes no reference to images or exemplars--Ray points out that certain sentences sound grossly unnatural to the ear of any native English speaker, which is empirically true. The argument does not depend in any way on the word "man" being associated with an image of a male human being--it only depends on it being associated primarily, even in the cases where it might be thought to be gender-neutral, with the concept "male human being."
Some people find gender-neutral language distasteful for what amount to aesthetic reasons. Given that its aesthetic qualities are important properties of a language, these arguments should be taken seriously, which is the purpose of this section.
Awkwardness of Alternatives
Clarity is a desirable goal in writing, and many alternatives to the generic use of masculine pronouns decrease clarity. This decrease most often comes about through a lack of conciseness, particularly when the "he/she" and "he or she" locutions are used.
No one would deny the following text is ugly and awkward:
When a person comes up the stairs he or she should turn right or left, after which he or she should open the first door on his or her right, go down the stairs and turn to his or her left.
On this basis alone we must dismiss the use of gender-neutral language, for it requires too much of both the writer and reader to no useful purpose.
Everyone will agree that bad writing is not the sole province of users of gender-neutral language. So attempting to demonstrate that gender-neutral language is a source of awkwardness is problematic. One might as well say, based on a few examples of their misuse, that we should not use adjectives or adverbs, because they are obscurantist. Consider Paul Clifford's famously bad opening line:
It was a dark and stormy night, and the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.So, simply because something is conducive to bad writing in the hands of those who would misuse it does not demonstrate that it necessarily leads to obscurity.
Further, even if it were the case that a small amount of awkwardness creeps in from time to time, it is not the case that this would be to no useful purpose. In many areas, accuracy is bought at the cost of a little awkwardness--patent law, for example, is an extreme case of this, but there are many other cases as well. Any time we try to make language technically correct, as in the wealth of terms found in sailing, for instance, we run the risk of awkwardness, particularly in the hands of those new to the terminology.
Majesty of Alternatives
The English language has certain majestic turns of phrase, and "man" is often found in their midst. We would be doing ourselves and our children a great disservice if we bowdlerize that majesty by removing the generic use of "man" from our lexicon.
Suppose for a moment Shakespeare had meant "all humans" by "man". How would "What a piece of work are humans" sound? It doesn't have quite the same ring to it. By insisting on such emasculated language, we are losing the majesty and dignity of English.
Attempts to show that Shakespeare or any lesser author would sound bad if he or she had written in gender-neutral language are hampered by the fact that the arguer is never, in fact, Shakespeare or anyone of equal skill. It is very easy for me, for example, to write bad Shakespearean verse. I can do so as easily in gendered as gender-neutral language. Shakespeare, I'm willing to presume, would have been able to write brilliant Shakespearean verse under almost any circumstances. He did, after all, live and work in a police state, and made many enemies who forced him to make substantial modifications to characters such as Falstaff, but none of this pressure prevented him from writing brilliantly. Had he believed that women and men were equals, I have no doubt he would have found equally majestic language to express that truth.
Difficulties of Alternatives
Granted that it is possible to make gender-neutral language clear and majestic, with sufficient addition of genius, it is still true that doing so is difficult, and writing is hard enough without adding artificial difficulties of this kind.
Writing accurately, clearly and forcefully is always difficult. Learning to write in gender-neutral language is a small burden compared to enforcing agreement between subject and object, for example. And it is done for the same reason: so that language represents reality.
The purpose of this paper has been to present fairly and comprehensively the arguments against gender-neutral language. All of them have been found wanting, and Ray's original argument is sound.
It is true that in some times and places some people have used masculine pronouns in a way that they believe is non-gendered. But empirical data show that this is not the way most of their listeners or readers heard their usage.
Given the fact of gender-equality, there is a genuine epistemological need for gender-neutral language. Gender-equality is a fact about social reality, and gender-neutral language has a role to play in creating and sustaining the social reality it describes, so its usage has an unabashedly ideological intent. Opponents of gender-equality will of course oppose gender-neutral language, but my hope is that after reading the arguments and counter-arguments presented here, anyone who is in favor of gender-equality will also find in favor of gender-neutral language.