Politics & Policy

The War on Grammar

Sailors and Marines aboard USS Peleliu in 2013. (Photo: US Navy)
Clumsy attempts to avoid offending anyone do violence to the English language

This week, the 127-year-old American Dialect Society voted the plural pronoun “they,” used as a singular pronoun, their Word of the Year. Reporting the story, the Washington Post illustrated the new use of “they” with the mystifying sentence “everyone wants their cat to succeed,” the old way having been “everyone wants his cat to succeed.”

Trying to depluralize “they” is an asinine effort, stemming from a stupid misunderstanding made by stupid people whom the ADS has chosen to indulge rather than to correct.

The misunderstanding is best illustrated by a Washington Post copy editor who was quoted in the Post’s “singular they” piece. He describes the “singular they” as the “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

But English does have a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun – it’s “he.” Per the dictionary of record, Webster’s Second International Unabridged, the primary definition of the pronoun “he” is “the man or male being previously designated.” The meaning of “male being” is self-evident, but the meaning of “man” has been forgotten by many badly educated people. The first definition Webster’s gives for “man” is “a member of the human race.” Webster’s gives a quote from Hume by way of illustration, “All men, both male and female.” “A male human being” is the second-given, secondary definition.

Aside from being wrong, and sounding wrong, using ‘they’ as a singular steals precision from the language.

“Woman” always refers to a female human being, but in the abstract, “man” is neuter (or “gender-neutral,” as the Post says); likewise, “she” always refers to a previously designated female, but in the abstract, “he” is neuter. Just as an actress always refers to a female actor, whereas the abstract “actor” refers generally to both female and male actors. The Academy Awards give an Oscar to the “best actress,” while the Screen Actors Guild gives a SAG Award to outstanding actors, “male actors” and “female actors.”

Surely the American Dialect Society is aware of this. Certainly, they out to say so. You might ask why it matters one way or the other. Aside from being wrong, and sounding wrong, using “they” as a singular steals precision from the language. It is destructive. It makes horseshoe throws of sentences that would previously have been bull’s-eyes. English lost precision when “you” replaced “thou.” Ideally we’d still use “thou” as the familiar for an individual. But at least that change had a good reason; “you” caught on as the more polite form of address, as its equivalents remain in so many other languages (“tu” and “vous,” “tú” and “usted”).

And the same word-blind stupidity is spreading to our armed forces. As of last week, the U.S. Navy is dropping all job titles that include the word “man.” A chief yeoman will become just a chief. “Fire Controlmen” will become nondescript “Petty Officers.” To avoid insult, “sailors will no longer be identified by their job title,” says the Navy Times; the titles “airman, fireman, constructionman and hospitalman” will be “replaced by job codes”; “B320” or “B450” or some other colorless non-word.

All this because no one has told Navy secretary, Ray Mabus, that the suffix “man” does not necessarily mean male.

#related#And all this while the size and readiness of the military are plummeting to pre–Second World War levels. To boot, all this during the same week that Russia threatened to shoot down American planes over Syria; an implicit threat from Russia that it’s ready to go to war with us over Middle East hegemony. This just months after the U.S. did nothing in response to Iran’s navy’s capturing and humiliating ten American sailors (seamen?). This after many, many implicit and explicit red lines have been crossed in Syria, Ukraine, and the South China sea without any meaningful American reaction.

But at least no will call female airmen “airmen” anymore. Allow me to quote the very successful, highly respected swordboat captain Linda Greenlaw, who was made famous by The Perfect Storm. She wrote in her memoir The Hungry Ocean that she shakes her head at the “use of the word ‘fisherwoman’”:I hate the term, and never understand why people think I would be offended to be called a fisherman. . . . A fisherman is defined as ‘one whose employment is to catch fish.’ That describes me to a tee.”

We can only hope that some of our fishing fleet’s common sense rubs off on our naval fleet. If not, there are difficult times ahead.

Josh GelernterJosh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.


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