Gendered Pronouns and the Denial of Personhood

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The abortion rights era wasn't the first time people denied personhood to human beings by fiat without argument. It's happened before with slaves in the United States and apparently also with women in Canada, for very different reasons.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied full personhood to slaves (not to black people as a whole, as some have claimed, and not to black people exclusively but to any slave regardless of race, and there were white slaves) only for the sake of counting how many representatives a district would have. It's not as if the denial of rights came from this. That was already assumed. It would be silly to claim that slaves have 3/5 of a person with 3/5 of the rights of a person. This was merely a compromise between the northern states that didn't want non-voting slaves to count for representation when only the much smaller voting population would wield all the power those slaves would give them and the southern states that wanted more influence without giving the people who gave them that influence any vote.

According to Bill Poser at Language Log, a Canadian woman became some sort of magistrate, and some lawyers opposed it on the grounds that she wasn't a person and couldn't carry out her duties as a magistrate. This was in 1916. It sounds unbelievable, but once you see the legal argument for it you can tell it was just a silly lawyer's argument with no basis. Once that's clear, though, it has an interesting consequence for the debate over gender-neutral language to describe groups whose gender is mixed or indeterminate.

The argument went as follows. The Constitution of Canada, which includes something called the BNA Act, use 'persons' for plural statements and 'he' for singular. These laywers claimed that the Constitution then had restricted the legal use of 'person' to males. The Supreme Court agreed, amazingly. Bill Posrer remarks, "You'd think that the Justices of the Supreme Court would have been clever enough to recognize that he was used generically, not specifically in reference to men, wouldn't you?" I guess not.

This is so obviously a bad argument that it seems silly now to think the highest court in that country could have bought it. Yet what does that mean for those who are now claiming that the generic use of 'he' to refer to someone of unknown gender is sexist? For one thing, it belittles any language that has gendered inflections without necessarily associating those inflections with any physical sexual characteristics. This includes all the Romance languages. The French themselves may be bigots, but is the very language itself sexist for having gendered endings that don't match up with actual sexual differences in the things the words refer to? Such a claim would be so linguistically insensitive that I don't even know how to argue against it.

I guess it's worth acknowledging the differences between English and the more inflected languages. For one thing, we have very few gender indications. Personal pronouns are one of the few remaining gendered parts of the language, aside from some tendencies in names either left over from other languages or the remains of gendered inflections of earlier versions of English. Given that gendered endings are no longer part of English, one might suppose that the few that remain really should correspond to real sexual difference. The problem with this argument is that English has been in this condition for a long time, and the few that remained didn't always correspond to sexual differences. The generic 'he' was quite common and wasn't seen as sexist until it became politically correct to identify every way men and women were treated differently as sexism, as if it weren't equally sexist to expect women to be just like men.

The last stand of the gender-inclusive movement is simply to claim that the English language is changing. They're right. It is. In some parts of the country, particularly among people in younger age groups, the use of the generic 'he' sounds exclusive. It strikes me as odd and archaic. In most of academia, it's been abandoned. Large numbers of people are no longer in a position to have heard it regularly growing up as I did with the older Bible translations that everyone used in those days. Some still do, but biblical illiteracy and anti-intellectualism have been increasingly keeping people from being exposed to that sort of thing. Those who read Shakespeare or Bertrand Russell will see this thing all the time, but if they're my age or younger then they're also likely to be among the groups who feel a bit of a distance from people who use 'he' generically. People in the older generation, particularly if they are steeped in older translations of the Bible or in the historic literature of the English language, are likely not to understand the complaints of the people in the younger generation, simply because they're so out of touch with where things are headed that they just don't have the same reaction that most people have.

This varies in different parts of the United States, not to mention other parts of the world, but it's clearly a change. Given that change, I think it's a good idea to resist those who insist on retaining a generic 'he' on purely traditionalist grounds. Languages change, and grammars change. Even in formal written English, it's becoming standard to use a plural 'they' for a singular person of unknown gender or to use 'he or she' and 'him or her' or the awful-looking 's/he'. It's more consistent with the older grammar to alternate gender terms with cases of unknown gender or simply just to use feminine terms to make up for the masculine terms that dominated for so long. I'm not interested in debating which of these is best. I accept any of these on papers submitted to me, as long as the writer is consistent, which is usually not the case. I have my preferences. What I'm saying here is that none of these is grammatically incorrect, simply because correct grammar is a function of actual usage, which has changed to the point, even in formal English, that those who complain about this as incorrect grammar just appear archaic and linguistically insensitive. I think it's a correct perception. Even if I'm wrong on that, too many people have that perception for me to think it's worth resisting this change.

Still, it seems to me to be a separate question whether the part of the English language that's on its way out is sexist. There are three ways someone might think it's sexist. 1. People who instituted it are sexists and instituted it to further sexism. 2. It involves false assumptions about women and girls. 3. It leads to harmful consequences for women and girls.

The first argument is at best speculative and more likely is just historically inaccurate. These elements of English seem to be leftovers from practices in other languages or from earlier incarnations of English that were more like French in having inflections that included male and female sexual differenentiation but also involved things like chairs and clouds that don't relate to anything like sexual differences. There's nothing sexist about that. Perhaps sexism explains why these were retained and not others, but I doubt that also. The most likely explanation why these were kept and not others is simply because they were used more often. That's why most archaic and irregular forms that were once more pervasive in a language persist despite the disappearance of most other similar forms. The most common forms in any language tend to be the most irregular.

The second argument has a little more weight. If the reason for using male pronouns for indeterminacy of gender was because men were assumed to be better or more important, then this could be seen as sexist in the second sense. I don't know the historical issues too well here, but this seems unlikely to me, at least in English. In Latin and ancient Greek, male gender was the default, as in this English usage that's on its way out. With inflections required for every word, each word had a gender. When a group consisted of male and female members, the pronouns would always be masculine. It may be that this was because the people doing this assumed the male members of the group were more important and thus it defaulted there. I think it's more likely that horses were treated as masculine by default. If a group was known to be exclusively (or perhaps even largely) female, the feminine endings and pronouns would have been used. I believe the same is true with adjectives modifying 'equus', which was normally masculine but could be modified with feminine adjectives to indicate a female horse. I believe the same is true of other animals that were normally taken to be feminine, though some animals had different words for each ('taurus' and 'bova' for a bull and a cow in Latin). So it's not clear that the origins of this sort of thing had sexist assumptions, and it's even less likely that those who did it in English were doing it from sexist assumptions, since English came along as a product of other languages that already did this alongside a more expansive gendered system of inflections.

The last argument, therefore, is the only one that I would consider worth worrying about. Some people don't like the idea that something can be racist, sexist, etc. just because it has bad consequences for the group in question. Dictionaries have been slow to regognize that the term is often used to describe exactly that kind of thing. Dictionaries are descriptive, though, not normative. We don't look to the dictionary to tell us what a word means when we're already familiar with how it's used. We discover what a word means and then write dictionaries to reflect that to inform those unfamiliar with how it's used. In this case, we need to look to see what 'racism' and 'sexism' cover in their ordinary usage to see if the dictionaries are accurate. Race theorists, for instance, argue that we need some term to describe harmful social practices that are not intended to harm anyone but do. If those harmful consequences are largely on the basis of race and race alone, then the practice can count as racist, even if no harm is intended.

This is why it's still racist to discriminate against a whole racial group on the grounds that other people won't give you as much business if you have that racial group acting as your public face. This is why it's still racist to say that white couples shouldn't adopt black children on the grounds that there's some kind of cultural heritage that somehow morally belongs to them because of their genetic makeup that you're somehow robbing them of, even though otherwise they'd have no parents and be raised in orphanages or moving from foster family to foster family. This is why it's still racist to claim that Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell aren't black on the grounds that their views aren't in line with the majority of black people in this country. In none of these cases is there any intent to harm black people. The last two cases are more common among black people. Still, I think it's best to retain this usage of 'racism', and the same goes for the analogous cases of sexism. We can disagree on what counts as racist or sexist under this definition, but I think it's a legitimate way of being racist or sexist.

Now what about the harmful consequences of using masculine pronouns to refer to mixed or indeterminate groups? Are there any? Some people say so. Craig Blomberg, for instance, says that his daughters had a real problem interpreting biblical passages that used gender-specific language that was never intended to be applied only to males. I suppose that's a harm, but it's due to a misunderstanding that could easily be corrected with proper teaching, with all respect to Blomberg who I imagine teaches his children well in most ways. The same might be said about the claim that this sort of language use causes people to think women are inferior (which is independent of the claim that it was caused by people who think women are inferior). Some people, especially due to the urging of feminists that this is sexist language, have used it to justify ridiculous attempts to make women be just like men. Well, that's a harm, but it's the immediate cause that's to blame, not the thing the people who were the immediate cause based it on. So I'm having trouble thinking of ways this is harmful that couldn't be avoided if we were simply willing to teach people what those who do this really mean and why they don't find it as strange as some of us do. For that reason, I can't join those who say it's sexist.

Footnote: Geoff Pullum, also on Language Log, responds to Poser's post with the following argument:

There's no such thing as a gender-neutral 'he' or 'him' in English. Consider the following cases:

1. Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself.
2. Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?

There are similar arguments in this paper at the site of the American Philosophical Association, though they state that they don't necessarily endorse the paper but just want to open people's eyes to the issues. Other examples would include:

3. Anyone who seeks to have an abortion is willingly killing his child.
4. Whoever gets assigned to me as a midwife is going to have his work cut out for him.

The third and fourth statements seem bad, but they don't seem to me to cut against the view I've been explaining. Both statements involve background assumptions that don't seem to me to be part of the semantics of the statements themselves. The third sentence seems bad because we know only a woman can have an abortion, and we don't use masculine pronouns for women even if the grammar of the sentence doesn't tell us that whoever the 'anyone' refers to must be female. We know that, so we'd never say anything like 3. The fourth sentence seems barely possible to me, but since most midwives are women this sounds unlikely. It seems to me that 'midwife' in English will default to feminine gender simply because almost all midwives are women. That's a background assumption explaining why the sentence sounds funny to us, not a grammatical rule preventing such a sentence. I think the sentence is grammatical, and I'd probably say the same of 3.

The first two sentences at first seem to be of a different sort. In each case there is a disjunction, with each disjunct of a different gender. They seem perfectly parallel in that way. I think these are ungrammatical, but I don't think it's because people normally assume 'he' refers to a male until it's proved otherwise and then revert to feminine terms. Sometimes people do that, but I don't think that's the grammatical rule explaining this phenomenon. Here's what's clear. In the dialects of English that still have this usage, grammatically masculine terms are used to refer to someone or a group of indeterminate/unknown gender when this group or person is described in the abstract. When terms are present that suggest a gender, this doesn't seem to happen, even if the terms suggesting it are put into a disjunction between both possibilities.

Pullum argues that a grammatical rule prevents these cases from sounding ok. I don't think that follows. The explanation I gave for 3 and 4 seems to me to be possible here as well. What was problematic in 3 and 4 was an outright assumption that the person was female, though grammatically there was no problem because the semantics didn't require it. If a man could become pregnant with scientific advances, the third sentence could be shown to be grammatically fine, and I don't think anyone doubts the possibility of male midwives, even if there aren't any actual ones. Something similar seems to me to be going on in the first two sentences. Once you use 'husband' and 'wife' or 'father' and 'mother', you're forcing someone to think concretely. That means any possible abstact notion of a gender-indeterminate person that would be required to think about sentences like 'Anyone who is egotistical is full of himself' would be impossible. It's not a background assumption at work here but the psychological difficulty of imagining a gender-neutral father, mother, husband, or wife, since those have gender-specific meanings. So I don't think these cases show that Pullum's virw is correct. I don't think I've established my view either, but the very existence of it with nothing to rule it out shows that Pullum's view hasn't been established, and I've at least dodged the objection.

The place where this issue involves the most heated debates is with biblical translation. I do want to note at least some things I'd say about what my conclusions bring to that debate. I want to acknowledge first that I haven't dealt with the issue of whether there's a gender-neutral sense of 'man'. I think that's a separate discussion that has far more issues that would needlessly complicate and lengthen this already long post, so I've deliberately decided not to discuss it at this point. Still, all I need to say for this issue is that it's incredibly easy to remove all references to the generic 'man' and replace it with either 'person', 'human', 'humanity', or 'humankind'. Since the Greek and Hebrew words will almost invariably be equivalent to one of those, there's no problem with doing that even if you have issues with pronoun translation. So that's my first point about translation. Second, the grammatical objection to using plural or non-formally matching 'he or she' for one pronoun is silly. When the context is clear that a mixed group is intended, there's no point in resisting the trend and putting 'he or she' in the text with a footnote explaining that it's a masculine pronoun in the Greek or Hebrew or vice versa, depending on how formal or how dynamic the translation is intended to be.

There are hard cases are when the meaning would get changed or at least be misleading by going plural or by introducing a 'he or she'. There aren't actually very many of those compared to the ones that aren't problematic. Since I don't consider it sexist to use the generic 'he', I think these are the best places when it might be retained. The hardest cases, though, are ones where the meaning is very much affected by your translation but where there are theological disagreements among translators about which meaning is intended in the first place. For instance, if elders are restricted to men, as I think a plain reading of the text indicates, then using 'he or she' would be a mistranslation. Those who want to resist that view will try to translated it that way deliberately. What do you do here? There are few enough such cases that I don't see a problem with having the translators look over the scholarship, debate the options, choose one, and list the other in a footnote. Translations will then differ on how they do it, but they would all indicate the view that came out as the minority view among their translation board in a footnote so that the reader has access to the information. If Christians really are concerned about reflecting the unity among believers that Paul says is already a reality, they will consider this kind of thing. Of course, the participants of heated political discussions among Christians rarely consider such biblical statements about unity. That's the real problem with the gender-neutral debate. D.A. Carson calls it Bible Rage. My dad calls it spiritual blindness.

11 Comments

The fourth sentence seems barely possible to me, but since most midwives are women this sounds unlikely. It seems to me that 'midwife' in English will default to feminine gender simply because almost all midwives are women. That's a background assumption explaining why the sentence sounds funny to us, not a grammatical rule preventing such a sentence. I think the sentence is grammatical, and I'd probably say the same of 3.

I think the factor you note is at least a partial explanation, but let me suggests one more factor that might play into this, too--that the ending "wife" or "wives" also helps make this last sentence sound goofy. If we called them "childbirth facilitators", or something like that, would it sound quite so bad?

Sort of in the same way that the term mailman makes it sound as if the person is male, and so it sounds silly used with the pronoun her (or she), but mail carrier doesn't. As in:

Any mailman worth his or her salt won't be afraid of Gnash, my pitbull.

This one sounds silly.

Any mailcarrier worth his or her salt won't be afraid of Gnash, my pitbull.

This one doesn't sound silly. (Well, yes it does, but not because of the gender thing.)

Don't you think that in this particular case (the midwife sentence) it might just be that the title itself is gender specific?

Sorry, I know that's just a very minor part of the whole piece you've got here, and in general I agree with the points you are making.

I'd thought about mentioning that as a possibility, but I thought it was too complicated to go into. One of the problems I have with this idea is that so many English words have the appearance of being compound words but simply aren't, like 'butterfly', and I think 'midwife' is now something like that. There may have been a time when it wasn't, but I think it now is.

You seem pretty sure in your conviction that your sentence with 'mailman' sounds wrong, but my wife reports that she has no problem with that sentence.

I'm not sure that whether the word is really compound or not is all that much of an issue. To a certain extent, it might be just how one's ear hears the words, and whether the combination--with wife and him--causes a bit of a pause.

I don't think the "mailman" sentence sounds wrong so much as it causes me to do just a bit of a doubletake, and the other one doesn't. That it causes me to do a doubletake and doesn't cause your wife to might be a generational thing more than anything. Anyway, this is one of the reasons I prefer the pronoun "their" to "him or her".

But that's not really the comment I wanted to make--I wanted to comment a bit on Craig Blomberg's daughters. Sort of. I think there is a bit of difference between knowing that you are included in the "he", and really feeling it. I remember when I was in highschool and I first changed "this man" in a verse to "this woman", and had a bit of an "Aha!" moment. I would have known before that the word "man" included me, but I didn't feel it in the same way that I did with the word change. I think that at this point in my life, I automatically feel that "man", "men" etc, can include me, so this whole things is neither here nor there to me now, but I think for younger women it might still make a difference.

It might be becoming more of a difference now too. That's what Blomberg would want to say, I would imagine.

I don't think you were quite fair in presenting the argument that the generic use of "he" involves false assumptions about women and girls. Your version seemed like a bit of a strawman; who would think that "Every dog has his day" presupposes the inferiority of women? That's not the right sort of false presupposition. As Pullum's examples are supposed to show, referring to a generic individual as "he" presupposes that the individual is male. And this can be problematic: consider "Every citizen must do his duty." This doesn't necessarily presuppose that men are more important than women, but it does presuppose that all citizens are men, which is a bit of a problem in itself. Or so the arguments would have it.

Also, I think I've found some counterexamples to your explanation of Pullum's sentences (3) and (4).

5) I'm not sure who the murderer was, but I suspect that he was under five feet tall.

6) I'm not sure who the murderer was, but I suspect that he was male.

7) *I'm not sure who the murderer was, but I suspect that he was female.

How does (7) describe a more concrete person than (5) does?

Ideally, of course, I should interview some old people and make sure their intuitions about (7) match mine.

The examples you gave seem to show exactly what Pullum's seem to me to show, which is the view I gave above. Why do you think they're counterexamples to it? It must have something to do with this notion of a more concrete person, which I don't really understand. The view I was offering is as follows. When you begin to think more concretely about someone so as to include gender, you can then use 'he' only if the person is male. When you describe someone as abstracted away from gender, you can use 'he' generically (in the any of the dialects that do this, of which I've already said mine is not one). That fully explains why 7 is bad but 5 and 6 are ok without postulating any such entities as more concrete persons.

I don't think the issue of exactly what assumptions are presupposed is important at all to my argument. If you think it is, tell me, but I don't see how a correction in that regard would change anything. My main argument was simply that a different way to capture the semantics is not only possible here and is just as simple an explanation as the one Pullum offers (contra Brian Weatherson's claim that Occam's Razor favors Pullum's account).

Sorry -- highly sloppy reading on my part. For some reason I thought you were arguing that when you describe someone abstractly, you don't need to assign them a gender, but when you describe them concretely, you do. This confusion naturally bred more confusion in my confused brain.

So I guess my examples don't add much to Pullum's. But how about this one?

8) I don't know who the murderer was, but I suspect he wore blue eyeshadow and high heels.

Blue eyeshadow and high heels don't decisively determine a gender, though they usually suggest femaleness. On your theory, shouldn't (8) either get a star (since "he" can't be used for people specifically imagined as female) or call up an image of a neutral individual in eyeshadow and heels? But I can't read it without picturing a drag queen (and incidentally, wanting to rhyme "murder" with "Frankfurter"). Of course, that just indicates that I don't speak the dialect of English you're trying to give a semantics for. Do you think there are any speakers left living? I'd love to try this sentence on people more linguistically conservative than me, but of course, that wouldn't prove anything about people from, say, the 19th century.

I think the issue of what assumptions are presupposed is very important to your argument. Since we're talking about two theories vying for the title of "best explanation", it's important to use the most plausible version of each. I think you've shown that your story explains Pullum's data as well as Pullum's story does, but not that your story explains it better than Pullum's story does. The issue is undecided, at least without more data. There may be additional data that support Pullum's story, but not (or not as strongly) the version of the presupposition story that you give earlier, where the generic "he" presupposes that men are better or more important than women. These data would be relevant to settling the argument, especially if they didn't support your story.

In fact, I think such data do exist, though they're from the 70s, which is a little late to establish much about the entire history of the English language. Kate Swift and Casey Miller write about a lot of it in a book called Words and Women, published in 1976, which I recommend. Apparently, children are more overwhelmingly likely to draw only male subjects to illustrate sentences using the generic "he" than for sentences using "they" or "he/she". This seems like better evidence for Pullum's hypothesis than for either the greater importance of men hypothesis or the "he" is really neutral hypothesis.

If "he" has packed presuppositions for almost 40 years, that's rather a long time.

I don't think I intended to give any argument why this view was more likely or better than Pullum's. All I meant to be doing was showing that his argument doesn't establish his conclusion, and I think I've done that.

As for your new sentence, I think the same psychological factors enter in. It doesn't specify a gender, but the issue of eyeshadow and high heels raises the question of whether it's a woman or a crossdresser, just as the disjunction raises the question of whether the person is male or female. So I don't think that refutes this view.

I don't think the Swift-Miller data show anything about 'he'. Those sorts of things turn out that way even without generic or so-called-generic pronouns. That's a cultural bias anyway, so it may not be that 'he' adds anything. It may be, but it may not.

Jeremy,

The problem is one wrong assumption that all the persons of the blog you quote know:

Dialectal variation is not a matter of ideological choice.

This is a basic linguistic fact. For instance, Modern Persian has no grammatical indication of Gender at all. There is only one third person pronoun: U. This does not mean that Iranians speak like this because Iranian society is Gender inclusive.

In the same manner, the respect form of address in Italian is lei, which means literally her, and is used to address both men and women (in such case it means you sir or you madam). This does not mean that Italians are anti-males.

In English there is a dialectal variation that has nothing to do with ideology. There are Sub-standard dialects of English where the generic pronoun is they as in:

Would you date to someone, because they have a car?

The construction above is used by any speaker of Sub-standard English regardless of whether he is sexist or gender-inclusivist. A speaker of this dialect of English speaks in this manner because the Grammar of his dialect is structure in such manner. Particularly, it is a Grammar that does use the same form for the indeterminate subjects and the generic and indefinites. The indeterminate subject is something like this:

They make nice pasta in Italy

It is not difficult to guess that the indeterminate and the generic both have arbitrary interpretations and that is why many languages of the world group them together.

The Standard dialect of English, on the other hand, makes the distinction between these specific forms that receive arbitrary interpretations. And this is so because of the manner the Grammar of Standard English is structured and nothing else.

The person who gave the examples 1 and 2 knows the literature and knows very well that neither 1 nor 2 serves as a test to indicate what the default gender in Standard English is. Your argument is correct: both 1 and 2 are coordination structures (in this case expressing disjunction). The default gender is a resource that does not cancel agreement and other grammatical rules. It is the sex of the possible denotata that may not correspond to the gender of the word, but the morpho-syntactic features of the words continue to exist in the sentential structure.

So, congratulations for your post. Rest assured that if you use he as generic in English you are using your right to use the natural grammatical rules of your dialect, and nothing ideological can be inferred therefrom.

One more note: There are languages which have she as generic and are used in Countries that did not allow women to vote either. So, although legal texts would use a female pronoun, women were still disfranchised anyway.

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