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’.

The ‘solution’ M & S propose in that instance is to replace ‘small boy’ by ‘child’. Most of their ‘solutions’ have the same depressive effect of sucking the imaginative content out of material that can ill spare it. ‘Her craftsmanship was hailed as outstanding’ is one of the examples that they have made up (which they differentiate from their authentic quotations) and then rewrite. If rewriting is going, I think the cliché at the end of the sentence could do with some, but it is the ‘craftsmanship’ that excites M & S to disapproval. This, they suggest, should be replaced by what they call a synonym, ‘craft skill’. I doubt if that is a complete synonym and it certainly isn’t idiomatic. M & S want to throw away a pleasing word and, at the same time, some of the advantage that English derives from linking its possessive adjective to the possessor instead of the possessed, with the result that English can give new information (his table or her table) where in Italian la sua tavola is condemned to giving you, twice over, the anyway erroneous information that the table is female. M & S have persuaded themselves that the man component in ‘craftsmanship’ excludes women. Plainly, however, it doesn’t. As their own invented example demonstrates, English can say ‘her craftsmanship’.

On the more interesting and quirky subject of bisexual words to which English sometimes gives a feminine form, M & S have perversely little to say. I was once driven to public expostulation when a chairman introduced me to an audience as an authoress, but I am aware that Jane Austen, who wasn’t Hungarian, wrote of herself as an authoress and that, had the word been ruled out, Samuel Butler could not have turned so succinct a title as ‘The Authoress of the Odyssey’.

He couldn’t have done the equivalent were the Odyssey a painting. It would be easy to conjecture that we have ‘authoress’ and ‘poetess’ (a word that should nowadays provoke fisticuffs in Earls Court Square but that can, in 17th-century parlance, take on the charm of ‘shepherdess’) because women were early admitted in considerable numbers to literature whereas they were largely kept out of or kept quiet in the visual arts. The conjecture won’t, however, work – a fact that might be taken as a pinch of salt with M & S’s assertion that the ‘vocabulary and grammar’ of English often reflect a ‘white, Anglo-Saxon, patriarchal’ society given to excluding or belittling women. It is true that we have no paintresses, but those yet rarer beings, women who sculpt, go in danger of being called sculptresses.

M & S give a list, extracted from a document compiled by the US Department of Labor, of words that name people’s occupations in ways judged to be ‘Sex-and-Age-Referent’, together with suggested substitutes for them. This includes rewriting ‘draftsman’ as ‘drafter’ – which I suppose one can, if one must, understand as describing someone who drafts things. M & S don’t, however, say what they would like us to call visual artists who neither paint nor sculpt but draw. Drawers?

As a replacement for ‘chairman’ M & S, wary of ridicule, propose not ‘chairperson’ but ‘chair’. That may be just passable in their examples, which are all on the lines of ‘The new chair will take office at the annual meeting,’ but I don’t think I could have said that I was once introduced as an authoress by a chair. They seem not to have noticed that English is already working its usual felicitous trick of assigning divergent meanings to doublet forms. A woman who becomes a school governor enters the same professional area as but does not risk being confused with a governess; and although London buses might be said to be more sexist than Budapest trams in that they often have conductresses, Jane Glover is not in danger of being the conductress of an orchestra.

Inevitably, M & S’s supposed improvements denature anything that might pass for a joke. I don’t think ‘We asked the Girl Guides to man the exhibition’ is riotously funny, but if destiny forces me to read an account of the village fête I would rather come on that sentence than on its M & S version: ‘We asked the Girl Guides to run the exhibition.’ Perhaps M & S think it’s a mobile exhibition?

To ‘those who cannot bring themselves to use they in place of he’ M & S offer further alternatives. They record that the ‘anyone ... he’ construction was already being purified in the 19th century by the invention of a sexless singular personal pronoun, thon, and later inventors, who must have been undeterred by thon’s lack of success, have variously put forward co, E, tey and hesh. Or one may use one, but here the Handbook adds a caution: ‘In Britain the use of “one” does, however, have specific class implications.’

This I take to be one of the changes made for the British edition by (as Stephanie Dowrick, who made them, puts it in her preface) ‘including examples taken from British papers, by occasional rewriting of an American example ... and by excluding a small amount of material that was very specifically American’. Perhaps those girl guides were originally girl scouts. I also take it that, by ‘American’, Ms Dowrick does not mean, for instance, Cuban, Brazilian or Bolivian but has done without consulting a handbook of non-imperialist writing.

Another alternative to the singular they is, M & S suggest, to recast the whole thing in the plural. They quote and take exception to this sentence from a newspaper: ‘Each candidate had to write a description of himself as he thought those who liked, and those who disliked, him would see him.’ Knowing from the context that the candidates in question consisted of two men and six women, M & S protest that the sentence they object to excludes the six women – which in context it clearly doesn’t, since M & S know of their existence. M & S go ahead all the same and, presumably for the benefit of people who can’t read words in context but apprehend them as look-and-say cards in isolation, rewrite it as ‘The candidates had to write descriptions of themselves as they thought those who liked, and those who disliked, them would see them.’ I don’t think M & S should have offered to write a handbook for editors while they have obviously mislaid the cross-stitch sampler that hangs on every good editorial wall with the motto ‘Perhaps the writer had a reason for putting it like that in the first place.’ From their rewritten version it is no longer possible to be sure whether each candidate had to provide descriptions of one person or of eight.

Having begun their enterprise without ascertaining whether it can reasonably be expected to produce the results they desire, M & S conduct it without much in the way of a coherent concept of the nature of language. They remark that people often resist linguistic change but that changes do happen (of which they give a few arbitrarily chosen instances, chiefly from Old and modern English). These truisms are not enough to establish whether language can and, if so, should be nagged into changing in a programmatic direction. No more is their opening assertion: ‘Every language reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved.’ Even if you accept the assertion, it does not follow that by changing the language you can change the prejudices. And it is, as a matter of fact, quite some assertion to accept. Are M & S acquainted with ‘every language’ and (which seems even harder to believe) ‘the society in which it evolved’? I am not, but from a much tinier knowledge I should guess that modern English and modern French evolved in fairly similar societies, which indeed at times overlapped and which I imagine had, on matters like monarchy, feudalism, the social position of women, children and non-human animals, chivalry and religion, fairly similar views or ‘prejudices’. If M & S are to justify their assertion, they are surely bound to explain either how the same prejudioe is reflected both in the French habit of calling a woman and a table alike elle and in the English habit of calling the one ‘she’ and the other ‘it’, or in what way French prejudices so differed from English that they produced a language different in structural type.

M & S’s attitude to linguistic change is jolly or, more exactly, jollying along. ‘Today,’ they assure us, ‘no one expects a six-horsepower boat to be pulled by six horses.’ Actually, I suspect no one ever did. Surely the word, which the Shorter Oxford dates to 1806, was devised to compare mechanical power to beast of burden power? What M & S, in their jollity, never mention is that languages are mortal. Certain changes took place, including the development of a slipping clutch about the case endings of Latin nouns, and there emerged the languages of oc and oïl, French, Portuguese, Spanish and the rest. But it should not be forgotten that Latin dropped dead.

For M & S, a usage is obsolete if some people, unspecified in quantity or quality, don’t understand it. Without a nod to the much disputed frontier between popular and educated or between standard and minority usage, they argue that ‘man’ and ‘men’ in the generic sense are now misleading and should be scrapped because ‘recent studies of college students and schoolchildren indicate’ that they ‘have to a significant degree become inoperative at a subliminal level’. I do not find myself compelled by the argument. To begin with, college students and schoolchildren are by definition not completely educated yet. Moreover, I am convinced that, if you put up a notice beside a live wire saying ‘A man who touches this wire is likely to lose his life,’ there is not a woman in the country daft enough to suppose, either subliminally or superliminally, that you are promising her immunity.

Although their leaden literalness of mind forbids them to conceive, whether as metaphor or as psychological perception, that there might be a small boy in us all, women included, M & S rest much of their case against the generic ‘he’ on the dictum of a small boy. He occurs in an anecdote they quote recorded by ‘a teacher’: ‘I corrected a boy for writing “no one ... they” instead of “no one ... he”, explaining that “no one” was singular. But he said: “How do you know it was a he?”’ Instead of asking why the teacher didn’t go on to give the further explanation needed, M & S comment: ‘Children can be very logical.’ How true, how true. But children can also be ignorant of the resources of English. I daresay the boy in the tale was also unaware of the different senses in which we speak of laws of nature and of the laws of the land, but that is not to say that one of them is obsolete and misleading and should be shot on sight by ‘writers, editors and speakers’.

With their tin ear and insensibility to the metaphorical content of language, which is what makes it the vehicle of literature, M & S are inept arbiters of linguistic change. Any minute now they will be forbidding women to read Du Côté de Chez Swann or Treasure Island on the grounds that there is no small boy in them to whom it could appeal, and likewise warning men off Alice in Wonderland. Anyone who has held even a flimsy office (a chairship, perhaps) in the milieu of writers, editors and speakers has probably by now experienced assaults by pressure groups of equal ineptitude trying to nag him into acts of censorship or pledges of self-censorship. The assaults are displacement activities. Writers and editors are considered soft targets and they are attacked because the real targets refuse to give way. When 51 per cent of the chairmanships of banks, industries and cabinet committees are held by women, no one will quibble about addressing the women concerned as ‘Mr Chairman’. The writers and editors who meantime suffer assault should not give way, and they need experience no crisis of conscience because, if they yielded, they would accomplish nothing whatever for the cause of sex-equality. Their duty is to the language, and to its elasticity and metaphorical power, and the reply they should return to the naggers is ‘Co, E, tey and hesh.’