Small Boys and Girls

Brigid Brophy

  • The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing for Writers, Editors and Speakers edited by Casey Miller and Kate Swift
    Women’s Press, 119 pp, £3.25, November 1981, ISBN 0 7043 3878 5

‘Ah, Jane Austen! He is such a great novelist!’ That was said to me by a Hungarian émigré, who, when I mildly queried the ‘he’, explained: ‘I find those English pronouns tiresome. We don’t have them in Hungarian.’ Thus I stumbled on the fact, which I report now in Mario Pei’s words (and on his authority, since mine doesn’t rise to vouching for a syllable of Hungarian), that ‘in Hungarian the same word means “he”, “she”, “it”.’ Unless things have changed since I was there in 1973, the trams in Budapest are driven by women. Otherwise, Hungary is not a discernible jot more sex-egalitarian than Britain or the USA.

And that conclusively pulls the rug out from under Casey Miller’s and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing. Centuries of being unable to differentiate ‘he’ from ‘she’ have not made Hungarians non-sexist. There is not the smallest reason to expect that Britons and residents of the USA will turn non-sexist overnight should Ms Miller and Ms Swift succeed in persuading the ‘writers, editors and speakers’ for whom their book is confusedly designed (why do speakers need a handbook of writing?) to scrap the ‘he’ in sentences like ‘Anyone who converses with émigré Hungarians will soon find that he is bewildered by their pronouns’ and replace it by ‘he or she’ or one of the other formulae that carry Miller-Swift approval.

Given that it has no hope of reforming society, there is no useful point in the enterprise. Results it may well have, but bad ones. The trouble most Britons experience is not in telling a masculine ‘he’ from a generic ‘he’ but in telling ‘he’ from ‘him’ (‘He said it was to be kept between he and I’). Rapped by pedants and yet subjected to teachers who refuse to (or can’t) divulge the rules, chivvied into euphemisms which often render attractive words unusable – if women do suffer a linguistic injustice, it is that they can no longer make their toilet – but derided for genteelism when they adopt them, warned de haut en bas that even old and seemingly innocuous words like ‘mirror’ may bear the stigma ‘non-U’, the citizens have come to apprehend their native language as a collection of dangerous taboo objects and are losing all confidence about wielding it. By adding to the areas of taboo, Ms Miller, Ms Swift and their numerous like can only speed the national degeneration into inarticulacy. Having lost the thread of syntax, Britain is becoming a linguistic desolation, imaged, I sometimes feel, in the desolate Southern Region of the railways where even the euphemisms are now surreally dilapidated and you can look into the corridor and see four shut doors bearing the label ‘TO LET’.

Mss M & S are prepared to sanction ‘he or she’, a phrase they claim has ‘made a comeback’ despite its clumsiness when it has to be repeated, but what they really applaud is the replacement of ‘he is’ by ‘they are’. The use of ‘they’ and ‘their’ as singulars, as in ‘Anyone using the beach after 5 p.m. does so at their own risk’ (one of the examples M & S give with applause), clearly delights something in them. But anyone who tried to put a name to it would do so at his, her or their peril. One of the gobbets M & S quote and savage is the remark, which they ascribe to ‘a book reviewer’, that H.G. Wells can ‘exert his magnetism on the small boy in all of us’.

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