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February 01st 2014 print

Geoffrey Luck

An Epicene Pronoun-cement

The epicene pronoun is the most obscene manifestation of the tyranny of the politically correct. It ranks just ahead of de-genderising common nouns.

grammarTo me, the epicene pronoun is the most obscene manifestation of the tyranny of the politically correct. It ranks just ahead of de-genderising common nouns.

What brought this rush of blood to his head, you may wonder. The answer, yet again, was the ABC.  In that dodgy blog known as The Drum, ubiquitous reporter/presenter Marius Benson wrote:

One possibly unique Australian tradition in sport is to boo the Prime Minister when they turn up at an event.”

There couldn’t be a better example of the ugliness and awkwardness inflicted on the language by the culture cleaning brigade in its determination to avoid the non-gender-specific use of ‘he’.  In this case, of course, he was constrained by the fact that Australia has now had one female prime minister. To use ‘he’ would have been a hanging offence, given that the sisterhood controls most of the ABC.

I know that anyone who takes this line (and most people have given up by now) will be declared a pedant, an antediluvian grammarian and a frightful bore. Dictionary editors have no patience for such objections. I once had a sharp little argument with the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary when she gave a talk to the Sydney Institute. Gerard Henderson (who may not have met an epicene pronoun and didn’t want to) had to break it up.

The (post) modernists flock to Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Chaucer and any number of classical authors to prove that the usage of plural ‘they’ and ‘their’ to  follow a singular subject has a venerable provenance and is well grounded in history. But they assiduously avoid (or don’t understand) that the uses they quote are of ‘generic’ pronouns, and make perfect sense, viz.:

Caesar: “No, Cleopatra. No man goes to battle to be killed.”

Cleopatra: “But they do get killed”. — Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra

Unfortunately this discussion frequently turns nasty. Take for example the sneer in this quote from the website which calls itself Motivated Grammar. (What’s that? Read its essays and realise that just as Humpty Dumpty’s words could mean what he wanted them to mean, you can make grammar do what you want it to do. Because language belongs to the people):

“All you’ve managed to learn about English is how to get your brain to release some satisfying endorphins every time you blindly regurgitate some authority figure’s unjustified assertion. You’re not helping; you’re just getting someone to pretend to agree with you long enough to shut you up.”

Courtesy of the internet, you can also listen to a more civilised justification by an editor of Merriam Webster Dictionary explaining that most of us were taught to avoid ‘they’ and to use ‘he’ instead. This, she says, is thanks to a group of 18th century grammarians who decided that indefinite pronouns like ‘everyone’ are always grammatically singular and that masculine singular pronouns should be used for reference to them. The same went for non-specific singular nouns like ‘friend’. To those grammarians, inaccuracy of gender was less troublesome than accuracy in number.

Of course. It was an era when all of ‘mankind ‘ used ‘manpower’  to ‘man’ ships ; productivity was determined by ‘man-hours’ and police had ‘manhunts’ for maniacs.  So what changed? The womaniacs of the feminist crusade arrived with their illogical and paradoxical attack on language as a weapon in the transformation of society. Out went ‘he’ and ‘himself’ in this usage – at the same time that actresses, authoresses, hostesses and poetesses became actors, authors, hosts and poets. To the utter confusion of many sentences and many announcements.

Grammatical gender, like grammar is – or was – a neutral concept to assist clarity in communication. In English, not any more. And for anyone with an ear for the beauty of the English language, the contortions demanded by the confusion of grammatical gender with sexism have destroyed the euphony of so many sentences.

Take Master Benson’s howler above. Obliged as he his to kow-tow to the political mafia of his organisation, he could nevertheless still have embraced the plural, and written:

One possible unique Australian tradition in sport is to boo Prime Ministers when they turn up at an event.”

This, it could be argued, introduces another problem – obviously not more than one sitting prime minister turns up at a time – but it is easily understood, and easier on the ear than his version. And it follows in the tradition of Shaw (above).

Sadly, grammar is extinct as a schoolroom subject; in America, they are teaching it with stick diagrams – which explains and enlivens the subject. But Australians strike the problem when they have to move to a foreign language with its strict rule-based grammar and find themselves stranded between subjunctives, number and gender agreement and the pluperfect

Nobody reads (or refers to) Fowler’s Modern English Usage anymore. It’s going to be a huge task to bring Henry Watson Fowler up to date, but I’ve made a start by adjusting one of his observations. He didn’t know, but it could have been a comment on the desecration the epicene has wrought:

“The writer who produces an ungrammatical, an ugly or even a noticeably awkward phrase, and lets us see that he or she has done it in trying to get rid of something else that he or she was afraid of, gives a worse impression of himself or herself than if they had risked our catching them in their original misdemeanor; he or she is out of the frying pan into the fire.”

Geoffrey Luck was an ABC Journalist from 1950 until 1976