The Pen is Mightier… – by Cedar Sanderson

*Crossposted from Mad Genius Club.  [I actually want to make a post about Cassandras and how tired I am of them, but I woke up late and devoted time to cuddles and talk with husband, so… so… I’m not up to writing it now, and it would take the rest of the morning.  So I’m stealing Cedar’s post. And since she’s drawing a lot of idiots at MGC, ya’ll can go over there if you feel a need for troll chew toys – Sarah]

I said earlier this week I’m not naturally snarky. That doesn’t mean that things don’t rub me wrong and get me angry. And I am very angry right now. I have been watching a swelling tide of articles about people who are attempting to use language as a weapon. They have grasped the old saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” wrong way round and they don’t have a clue about what they are doing with it.

It starts with this. A professor is accused of racism for correcting student’s papers. The students, unhappy with this relatively mild critique of their work, staged a sit-in, even recruiting a nationally-known author to partake with them. One wonders if she read their papers and was tempted to whip out a red pen, or if she just saw the red flag of racism and charged. I have heard of students crying when confronted with a poor grade, but this is ridiculous. Suck it up, kids, we all make mistakes. You’re supposed to learn from them, though, not throw temper tantrums. Oh, and the papers? These are graduate students in an education program, writing proposals for dissertations. I would think spelling corrections on your life’s work would be a kindness.

Then this article hit me in the face like a cold, week-dead fish. I had kind of ignored the person who commented on an article I wrote a while back (The Genderless Mind) who told me he thought gender was a social construct. Sorry, no. You are born one thing, or another, and it’s not a choice. Biology is inescapable, my dear child. Stop trying to manipulate the language to fit what you want it to say. You can be a special snowflake in your own writing, while the rest of us try not to giggle out loud at your pretensions. Surely you don’t think you are the first rebel generation?

Another case of manipulation came to my attention gradually. I’ve known for most of my life that the uses of “man,” “mankind,” and “he” were falling out of favor for what they were intended, as general words for humanity. Unlike many other languages, English hasn’t got feminine and masculine endings to words, so we compromised on those, which now, it is said, means that we are promoting men over women. Oh, grow up. Anyone who isn’t looking for a reason to be offended knows what they mean, and it’s a fifty-fifty split between men and women on this planet. But now, there’s another word I keep seeing, and I finally had to look it up. “Cismale” is, evidently, a guy who was born that way, likes it, and stays that way. Often linked with gendernormative, another nonsense word, and fascist, when used by internet trolls.

This is where the double-edged sword comes in, and starts to cut those who are so enthusiastically grabbing onto these concepts. You see, normal people think of themselves as male, or female. People who opt to change their bodies to match how they see themselves in their own head don’t want to be called abnormal, they too are working for “male or female” and by creating all the odd terms, the perpetually peeved are othering them, as well. Division only creates barriers, fear, and suspicion. There’s enough of that already.

All this is confusing to everyday people, who all shake their heads and back away slowly when you come near them, and now you know why. You’re making those who want to live normal lives suffer, so you can throw your temper-tantrums. I really liked this from a recent discussion of cismale, “we offered a class called digital photography. What do they call it today? Photography. When something becomes normative, the adjectives, modifiers and prefixes disappear. At least they should. Its a matter of clarity. It is obvious that heterosexual behavior is normative. When you add a modifier to a normative word, you are not adding clarity, you are destroying it, intentionally.” So if you are confused what to call someone, try male, or female. Anything else is a cultural construct, and useless for any intelligent discussion.

Coming back around to the first article, the little boy who cried wolf is obviously no longer read aloud to children. Perhaps it has been replaced with a little girl who embraces her hairy moon-howling brother (and does he sparkle in the sun? Oh, mixing my metaphors). Those who decry racism with such vigor are not only diluting any real issues, they are often committing the very act they accuse. Whenever I see the term “person of color” I cringe. When I look at a person, I see a person, not a color. This, I believe, is the idea. If we are all equal, then why do people like this persist in twisting language to suit what they want to say, which is that the poor people of color can’t fend for themselves, they must have assistance to get that equality? That blog post is so wrong on so many levels it isn’t even funny. It’s like one of those comedy movies that is so stupid I have to hide my face and plug my ears if I’m not allowed to leave the room.

Writing needs to be about understanding language at a level that enables our readers to understand it as well. I enjoy learning new words as much as the next person. I don’t enjoy watching language become a vehicle for the agenda du jour, driven by ignorant people who are doing more harm to their own causes than they can possibly comprehend. It’s obvious to the rest of us that they are, like Winnie the Pooh, “of very little brain,” and it is time to put our foot down and say no. The tantrums need to stop, and until you have learned what that word really means, please don’t use it.

 

187 responses to “The Pen is Mightier… – by Cedar Sanderson

  1. If they stop throwing tantrums and stop perpetuating the idea that poor people need assistance they’d need to get a real job. Poverty pimps and race hustlers need as much confusion as they can make, to keep their self-created positions.

    • You see that all time — those who fix a problem are out of a job, so they manufacture another, and make sure it’s insoluble.

      • Exactly! They are moss on the tree of society. This metaphor brought to you from staying Portland, OR too long. I’m staying right by the Willamette. There are all these skinny trees that being killing by the moss growing on them. I am Fungicide! I will save these trees!

        • What a pity moss isn’t a fungus, then.

          (Yes, I have a reason for being pedantic, and it is to call attention to this general observation: Half the trouble in the world is made by people who have a very sound idea of what’s wrong, but wildly unsound ideas of how to put it right.)

          • Cool, I didn’t know moss was technically a plant….

            Fungicides still kill it, and “moss” is commonly use to mean “anything growing on a tree that isn’t a toadstool,” but it’s neat to know moss is a very basic plant with no roots, leaves or stems!

            • Cool, I didn’t know fungicides killed moss. So this is a case where the technicalities don’t happen to matter. Now, if that were only true of all the idiots who demand antibiotics for their colds and influenza—

        • Chances are that moss is actually a liverwort, another type of non-vascular plant. Moss and liverworts are interesting plants, both propagating by spores and providing micro-habitats for arthropods; they prefer wet climates – like near the Willamette. Many trees, other than conifers, grow aerial roots into the mats of moss and liverworts to gather the nutrients generated there by decomposition. Some of the ground-dwelling liverworts actually like “snake liverwort” have complex structures like tiny green-houses that protect photosynthetic structures in the upper surfaces.
          So, anyways, I’d say the perpetually aggrieved are not the moss and liverworts of the world, they are not nearly as interesting or benign. I’d call ’em the English Ivy of the world, clingy, disruptive and destructive; choking out and ripping down the things that support them

  2. I love your post!

  3. Cedar, good hearing from you. I just finished Pixie Noir. When I was in college I brashly wrote a paper for my English 101 on the subject of Why you shouldn’t work your way through college. (I was desperate for a topic and chose that one.) Anyhow the professor had worked his way through college and wrote more in red on my paper than I had written in black. My lesson was to be more diplomatic and balanced when I did the next paper.
    Some kids today seem to t to make a big fuss when they should be learning lessons of life.

    • I hope you enjoyed Pixie Noir…

      I’m not sure marking red on a paper for English 101 unless it was legitimate spelling and grammar problems was the right thing to do… I know my professor this last semester would write little notes on my papers but they didn’t affect my grade. Shall we say that my literary analysis didn’t always coincide with what she wanted us to see in an assignment.

      I could go into the psychology of what’s going on with today’s youth, but it’s too long. Maybe a blog post (over on my blog, likely! LOL) at some point. They need to learn true responsibility, and right now they have idle hands. Which leads to mischief (and man, that makes me feel like a crochety old lady to say!)

      • It desperately needs to be said, though.

      • For that matter it did not affect my grade. I apparently hit a sore point.

        • What’s wrong with everybody? Correction from an instructor, especially one that is written rather spoken, is a thing to be learned from! Do people really want to do the grammatical equivalent of looking like a crazy person?

          • I recall the alumni newsletter from my high school, not long after they shed themselves of me, including a report on one of our teachers who was spending time at our “sister school” in England (sibling school? Never heard about it when i was matriculating … probably part of a nefarious plan to protect the family from me…) in which this instructor observed that in England’s system the students got upset if interim work (papers, quizzes, tests) didn’t get enough corrections/red ink.

            Since the only test that really mattered there was the “Elevensies” (think of Harry Potter’s OWLS) the idea was that the goal of interim work evals was to learn what you didn’t know. Only by discovering areas of weakness are you able to strengthen them.

            Of course, this was back in the mid-Seventies when the “Self-Esteem” movement was not yet aborning and you were expected to desire self-improvement rather than affirmation. (Ever notice that what with all the focus on “The Greatest Generation” of recent years there is NO interest in what developed the character and values of that generation? Usually when you praise a performance you seek to find ways to emulate the attributes that helped achieve it, even if only by buying the endorsed sneakers or golf clubs.)

  4. YES – I really enjoyed this post. I used to tell people to NOT make up words because it must be done by a professional (i.e. someone who knew words, what they mean, and was not in the business of twisting them to fit new concepts). 🙂

    • They need to know what the words MEAN before they make up new ones!

    • Given how many centuries English has had to beg, borrow, steal, or invent words it’s doubtful that there doesn’t already exist a suitable word. And with the internet, there’s no excuse for not finding it.

      Neologisms are the sign of a silly or feeble mind.

      • Silly Neologisms are fine, but ones that are coined to impede communication, and to make the coiner morally superior are a menace.

      • Neologisms are the sign of a silly or feeble mind.

        Every word in the English language, with the possible exception of those inherited from Proto-Indo-European, was a neologism once. Astonishing, isn’t it, what all those silly and feeble minds built?

        • Nonsense! We stole many of our words, fair and square– no coining involved!
          😆

          • Considering how few of those words survived with either their spelling, their pronunciation, or their original meaning intact, I maintain that they count as new words ‘under the meaning of the Act’.

            • Filing off the serial numbers does not render a thing new.

              • Distinguo, Sir: The average word ‘borrowed’ by English from another language is like the knife in the old joke, which had two new blades and three new handles, but was just the same knife as it ever was. In most instances, the meaning, spelling, and pronunciation were all changed from the donor language at the time of borrowing, not by the slow processes of semantic and phonological drift.

                To take an example more or less at random, the English word atom is based on the Greek ἄτομος, but it doesn’t look the same, doesn’t sound the same, and doesn’t mean ‘uncuttable’ (a concept for which we already had several English words).

                Or if you don’t like that example, consider the word teapoy. In English, it means a particular kind of small three-legged table on which one keeps a tea caddy. It was ‘borrowed’ from the Hindustani word tipai, which simply means ‘tripod’. The spelling with ea was adopted, along with the current English meaning, through the influence of persons who thought that the word had some connection with the English word tea. The change of pronunciation, I am afraid, we can just put down to the typical English habit of never pronouncing a foreign word correctly, and priding oneself on it.

                It would be nearer the truth to say that the English words were ‘inspired by’ the foreign ones, in the same sort of way that Paul Verhoeven’s ghastly film Starship Troopers was ‘inspired by’ the Heinlein novel of the same name; and to count the English words as neologisms. Whether you take that route or not, of course, it is trivially true that these words when borrowed were new in English; it is clear from their subsequent careers that they were useful; and that should be enough to make anyone doubt a blanket claim that all neologisms in English are suddenly unnecessary.

                • The change of pronunciation, I am afraid, we can just put down to the typical English habit of never pronouncing a foreign word correctly, and priding oneself on it.

                  This is not only typical of English, but of most languages. Spanish, for example, has a severely phonetic spelling, which they pride themselves on, and a simple (more simple that English) pronunciation in that they have fewer sounds. Except for names, pretty much any loanwords have to be run through the twin mills of their phonetic spelling and pronunciation just as bad as in English. Surgery, for example, comes from the Greek Cheirogia, and the Latin Chirugia. In Spanish it is Cirugía. Another example is Shampoo, which in Spanish is “champú”
                  English does have some issues with spelling, and that goes to the fact that English is a rather patchwork pidgin of Indo-European languages that has borrowed promiscuously, but also that the principal basis of formal spelling comes from Samual Johnson writing his dictionary in the 1750’s with his established plan of “I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words.
                  In other words spelled it as he found it.
                  Personally I also feel that there is a deep vein of punning in English, not often on the surface, but underlying a lot of the understanding of the tongue. “Teapoy” would both come from the attempt to find a phonetic spelling that would transfer a foreign alphabet to the roman alphabet, but also, since it was coming from India, where they had Sepoys who did the heavy work in carrying the Empire there, and since this thingy called a “tipai” carried the tea….that’s a mnemonic you can live with.

            • World’s biggest act of filling off the serial numbers…..

              I’d argue that so long as the original import was roughly the same was what the guys we took it from were using it for, it’s just using an existing word and any changes afterwards are language drift– but it’s awful hard to know that!

              • Given the massive structural changes engendered in the English language by 1700 due to the Great Vowel Shift and efforts to standardize variant spellings, and considering the significant regional differences in word pronunciation and meaning in various parts of the Anglosphere (e.g., the various reactions you’d get for announcing you’re looking for a new “fanny pack” or that you’ll be inviting Constable Jones around for a joint someday soon) it seems likely that, per Br’er Simon’s definition, there is not now nor ever was an English Language.

                • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                  IMO it depends how “Language” is defined. [Smile]

                  It is true that there are different “types” of English, German, French, etc.

                  And “Proper” English (German, French, etc) depends on what the rulers of a country use. IE the KIng’s/Queen’s English is the “proper” English in England (for example).

                  Of course, as an American I’d say that “proper” English is what Americans speak. [Very Big Evil Grin]

                • There is an English language with varying dialects.

                • What did you do, daddy, during the Great Vowel Shift?

                  • I fled the region and took up with an Hawaiian lass, so I could get all the vowels I wanted…

                    • I have long believed that the Romans plundered Northern Europe’s vowels, which explains the promiscuous vowelization of Mediteranean languages and the relative paucity of vowels in those lands north-east of Germany (apparently the Poles and Slavs were especially hard hit.) The Germans had to resort to umlautation to disguise and preserve their vowels, while the Scandinavian peoples performed unspeakable acts to protect theirs.

                    • RES, we were just trying to steal enough “U”‘s as we ran out of “V”.

                  • I was assigned to a unit tasked with deploying laxatives, encouraging the public to just let it go.

            • Oh, good grief– now I’m trying to figure out if “gaijin” falls in my category or yours, given that in Japanese it means non-Japanese, but we use it to mean something more like “Westerner that is interested in Japanese culture everything.”

              • In Portuguese my dad was convinced Gajo was gipsy slang. it might very well have been, but…
                but it fills the same role as “guy” which is a very ancient word, and if you think about it, maybe gaijin had its origins in the indo European and the Japanese stole it.
                Look, we were looking at Portuguese armor in a statue of the 11th century and going “so, this is where the Japanese got it? Or was…” Yep, including pointy round hat with little thing on top. And the scales thing you’d expect from anime.

                • Did they use any cloth to make the “scales”? One of the awesome things about being stationed in Sasebo was the “Samuri Armor” that was in the base galley– it was a real antique, although I can’t remember any hard details since I was more busy looking at details than memorizing data.

                  I love how the “old world” was a lot more squishy than we often imagine!

                • People who want to denigrate Western civilization often take delight in pointing out that this or that were originally invented by the Chinese/Japanese — without realizing that “trade” is a two-way transaction, and many Oriental institutions and artifacts were likewise of European origin.

                  When it comes to “stuff” I’m pretty sure that “invention” is often a matter of chance and/or circumstance with respect to who invented what and when. Sometimes, too, it’s not what was invented, but how it was developed; gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, but they used it mainly for fireworks (their “guns” were bamboo poles which used gunwpder to shoot arrows). So when the Chinese were still watching fireworks, Europeans were using gunpwder to power siege cannons and muskets.

                  One of my brilliant profs (see below) was a linguist who could tell you not only the origin of a word, but its development along several different courses by different peoples. I have no problem with any of this stuff, other than when a new word is coined when a perfectly-good descriptive word already exists already. (Don’t get me started on illiterate nonsense like “irregardless.”)

                  Myself, I love using words that have perfectly-sound meanings, but that have fallen into disuse (couth, lickspittle, etc.)

                  • Have you noticed how rarely, thrice and even twice, are used these days?

                  • “Cad” is my favorite–especially when folks Of A Certain Agenda try to make hay of there being “no male version of slut.” (The term “man-slut” may or may not count– they object to the implication of “cad” in that case, while I’d say the implication is accurate.)

                    • I always got the impression that a “Cad” was merely someone with no respect for women, and treated them like objects.

                    • Treats them in a “dishonorable” or “irresponsible” way– which, yes, pretty much means “uses them like objects.” Remove the circumlocution and that means using them sexually, probably with a big dose of emotional use.
                      I’m fighting the urge to digress into how cads use emotion to get sexual fulfillment, while sluts use sex to get emotional fulfillment….

                    • Write me a guest post…

                    • *Scowls* I have three in process that I was going to do over Thanksgiving, along with getting two of my own for Catholic Stand done.

                      Ended up getting exactly three lines, two of which were not for any of the above.

                    • Which seems to be the modus operandi of the PUA contingent, who claim that it works well. Given the conventional wisdom that women go for jerks, and hence jerks get lots of action, “cad” seems appropriate.

                      That said, the distinction between a key that opens many locks vs. a lock that opens for many keys still holds. Likewise the relative ease of access afforded to each sex in amorous pursuits. We admire the achievement that is difficult, while we disparage that which is easy.

                    • Yes. I much prefer Loose Fish.

                    • So? Sluts are females with no respect for women, and treat them like objects; cads are males with no respect for women, and treat them like objects.

                      The correct solution to their objection restoring the opprobrium of cads, not eliminating it from sluts. Their solution consists of applying the equivalent of Axe body wash to femmes.

                    • “Male version of slut”? I thought “Progressive,” “Liberal” and “Democrat” were all male versions of slut, although I s’pose properly they are “non-gendered” equivalents.

      • LOL– many of these folks don’t know how to crack open a dictionary, let alone read it.

  5. Great post. The whole pronoun thing is particularly infuriating. It makes me want to refer to everyone as “hey, you.”

  6. A couple of years ago, one of my students (I teach a class or two each semester for a community college) complained to administration that I was treating her “unfairly” because I was prejudiced against persons of her race.

    It was an online class.

  7. BoxOysterBlack

    I always thought there were sound biological roots to being transgender, but if this outbreak of gender-neutrality at the girls’ college isn’t a fad, then neither are tattoos. They wanted a marginalized class to call their very own, or something.

  8. I went to undergrad college in the Deep South. One evening several of us were discussing the latest Ted Turner and Jane Fonda headlines in the regional newspaper. One of my classmates, who grew up in a trailer in northern Georgia, shook hear head over the mess. Another gal, one of our campus “ethnic” activists, sighed then slapped her hand down on the table and announced, “You don’t have to be poor to be white trash and you shure don’t have to be black to be a n-gger!” That sort of summed it up for me.

  9. mikeweatherford

    I haven’t read the other comments yet, but I LOVE this post! Not only do certain elements try to distort language to suit their personal (or imposed) beliefs, but they use ordinary language in a way it was never intended. May all such idiot step-children receive their just “rewards” — in the unemployment line, unheard of and not missed.

  10. Christopher M. Chupik

    “Person of color” is meaningless. *Everybody* has a color, unless they’re transparent. “Person of size” is equally dumb.

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for writing this post. One of my pet peeves is the use of gender when obviously the word should be sex. I am old so I can use old grammar rules.
    On the other hand, transgender. I have a grand nephew who is transgendered. He was born a he, but it was learned when he didn’t develop as a man that something serious was amiss. He is now a she. It is not an easy life to go through that traumatic an event. I will honor his/her request and use the term transgendered when in fact it is trans sexual.

    • No, it’s not easy. I have friends who have, or still are, going through that process. I honor what they have chosen and refer to them as he, or she, male, or female, as the case may be. I’d rather not say transmale or some such nonsense that would make them obviously other than what they chose.

  12. John McDonald

    A large part of the problem, I feel, is that most schools do not require students to practice their writing and critical thinking skills during their k-12 education. And colleges allow sloppy work at the undergraduate level. This makes it easy for ‘academics’ to promulgate such obvious levels of BS masquerading as knowledge.

    When my wife was in the Master’s of Social Work program, I purchased ProCite, a bibliographic program, to help her with all the papers she had to produce. In one class, she volunteered to produce the final paper for a group project, including the bibliography in APA format. Over the weekend she had gotten all her group’s pieces, she showed me one young lady’s contribution. Sentence fragments, misspelled words, and incorrect tenses made it unreadable in that I could not understand any point she was trying to make. It did, however, include all the big words that had been discussed in class.
    My wife had her come over to our apartment to do some revisions. The gal could not understand why my wife was objecting to statements like “The correlation shows the inter-relatedness of the related factors.”
    The young lady was magna cum laude graduate of the University of Washington, and told my wife “But all my professors have accepted my papers written like this.”
    Needless to say, my wife, who is a graduate of 12 years of Catholic schools in the 50’s and 60’s, helped her revise her portion of the paper.

    • Don’t get me started, on this one.

      Today’s universities and colleges have been so dumbed-down in a lot of respects that it’s positively scary.

      My mom is seventy-five, and still teaching. (Don’t ask. Just don’t.) I went into her room once, and noticed a note written to her on her desk. Handwriting and English was atrocious, but considering that she teaches bi-lingual, not really that bad. What got me was the context, because it was talking about stuff that wasn’t really appropriate for a student (I guessed about 3rd or 5th grade…) to be writing her a note about. She glanced at it, and then casually corrected me: It was from another teacher, a recent graduate of a well-regarded state educational college. I nearly had a stroke, when she told me that bit of information.

      I’ve had to take witness statements while in the military. I sort of expect to have to take the ones from lower enlisted guys and clean them up. What I don’t expect is to have an officer, who’s theoretically got a college-level education, give me a statement about something they personally witnessed happen within the last six hours, and have it be so totally incoherent as to be useless. If he’d have written it out in crayon, I’d have been less surprised at the content, and taken it for the ramblings of a small child. As is, he did it on a damn computer, one with spell-check turned on, and still managed to misspell most words more complex than “and” and “the”. I made a point of checking, and, yes, he did indeed have a diploma from a well-known university, one whose alumni I will not embarrass by mentioning.

      My grandmother was a teacher, along with my great-aunt. I have their high-school transcripts from around 1910. Read those, and it looks like the sort of thing you’d expect from a graduate of an intense college-prep program of the sort you don’t see today, at all. Latin, Greek, Calculus, and a whole host of other things that aren’t routinely expected these days. I’ve been through her textbooks, as well–There’s stuff in that calculus text that they don’t teach until you get into a full four-year program specializing in math, these days. And, they had to have that in order to graduate, and then get into a college, which both of them did.

      If I had to gauge things, I’d say that a high-school diploma from that era was probably the equivalent of at least a two-year degree these days, and not one of those “gimme” ones, either.

      Sad commentary. We’ve lost so much, in terms of rigor and actual value.

      • When I have occasion to read stuff from college-students-not-my-sons-and-not-diehard-Baen fans I despair of humanity. It’s not their fault. Spelling and grammar was “optional” or “practical” or “if we can understand it it’s not wrong.” Not for my kids, mind. Mom descended from above like sudden death. Robert still struggles with dyslexia, but is literate.

  13. To be honest, I’ve only seen the terms “cismale” and “cisfemale” used in discussion of gender, where clarity is really important. I finally found out that the term for “cis” comes from a chemistry background, where “cis” is the opposite of “trans”.

    IOW, it’s a useful term for clarity’s sake when you’re talking about a specific subset of the world, but I haven’t seen the people who use it try to use it outside of that context. Think of it as a particular jargon, much like science has its jargon.

    • Yes, I’m taking chemistry so was very aware where that prefix was borrowed from. Sadly, it is being pushed into broader contexts than what you are referring to, including popping up in trolling on internet posts as a particularly nasty kind of insult. It’s not only incorrect usage, it is being forced into usage for a very bad reason – that of division.

    • There’s also “Cisalpine Gaul,” or northern Italy, and “Transalpine Gaul,” or France.

  14. For those who want a genderless pronoun, I’m amazed that they don’t use the one English already has: singular they/them/their/theirs. It’s been used to refer to a single person of unknown or unspecified sex literally for centuries, and by many major writers, and everyone understands it without thinking about it. But perhaps that’s the problem with it.

    I really would like to see it formally legitimized, because I edit academic writing where the use of generic “he” is often deprecated or prohibited—but I can’t change to singular “they” and move on. The officially acceptable choices are to say “he or she” (awkward, especially the tenth time you do it in a paragraph!), or to reword the whole passage in the plural so “they” is okay, or to eliminate pronouns entirely—and all three lead to strained syntax.

    • Somewhere on my bucket list is, ‘Interrupt a doctrinaire postmodern deconstructing feminist’s rant about “gender” to inform her (or, less likely, him or it) that the original distinction of gender in Proto-Indo-European was not between masculine and feminine, but between personal and impersonal. The idea of separate pronouns for males and females came later. Watch her (his, its) head explode. Post on YouTube.’

    • I learned the Generic He for singular pronouns. Number disagreement bugs me. My Dad used to yell at Burger King commercials where they said “Everybody’s doing things their own way.” and I personally can’t stand “To each their own.” (If you MUST pluralize it, use “To all their own.” thank you.)

      In my Usenet days, the feminist types tried to introduce gender neutral pronouns, “sie” and “hir”, but what they didn’t realize, even when I pointed it out to them, was how they were biased by the very language they were trying to reform. Being Feminists, they were very aware of the female pronouns. She for objective, Her for subjective, and Her for possessive. Those last two can be confusing, while male pronouns are clearer, being He, Him, and His. Their proposal of “Sie”, “Hir” and “Hir” suffers from the same linguistic defect as the female pronouns (probably related to a time when women couldn’t own anything?) but I found it interesting from the standpoint of “Dominant culture? You’re soaking in it.”

      • The pronoun “he” is genderless by convention. But we are free to change our conventions. We could change the convention to say that the pronoun “they” is numberless (that is, both singular and plural). In fact that has already happened once in English: the originally plural “you” is now used both as the singular and as the plural. I bet thou dost not even think of protesting at the bad grammar when someone addresses thee as “you.”

        But in terms both of linguistic origins and of how people naturally interpret it, “he” is not genderless. Try referring to a five-year-old girl as “he” and see what reaction you get, either from the girl or from the parents. “He” is the masculine singular pronoun; it’s *only* by convention that it’s genderless.

        And, well, generation after generation of small children has confronted the puzzle of situations like “If anyone asks for me, tell him I’ll be back at one” where the person asking might be female, and invented the same solution: “tell them I’ll be back at one.” No one ever has any trouble understanding it. The only reason it’s not universally accepted is that generation after generation of teachers insisted that it was wrong. I say that singular “they” is agreeable to the Genius of the English Language—who is not very given to obeying the rules of grammarians.

        • English used the “Thee/You” construction inherited from German for personal/impersonal address (Du/Sie in Deutsche.) It may have broadened in the singular/plural but the distinction was primarily between intimate and formal address.

          Back when I studied Deutsche in college I had a curiosity about the rules governing social transition from Sie to Du, with the understanding that it might be impertinent for a gentleman to prematurely address a lady as du rather than sie (certainly he should do so after coitus, unless that was a professional affair) and that so engaging might constitute a form of flirtatious engagement.

          Sadly, my two years of collegiate German were mostly expended wrapping my brain around the nominative, dative, accusative, genitive and ablative cases and I never advanced to intimacy with the language. As far as flirtation goes, I never grasped it as an intentional activity in English, so any surmises about it in other languages remain impurely speculative.

          • People get that wrong all the time when they try to write Ye Olde Butcherede Anglish. They don’t realize that personal is used toward people who either are your family or friends, or toward someone so distant from you in social status that you may either treat them as a child or a parent in relation to yourself. Impersonal is used toward people whom you don’t know very well but who are roughly your equals.

            Hence: “I love thee, Juliet.” “Thou art a foul knave!” “Thou art mine own true lord,” but “I like you enough, Bob,” See?

            Also, some verb and possessive forms change. “Thou art / You are” being the most obvious ones.

            Now I have to run and tell Princess Luna why she really should tone down on the Royal Canterlot Voice 😉

            • Bah, it got her many fans– including my two daughters, who insisted, at high volume, that the moon is “Princess Luna!” all the way home from Mass. (Ever hear a two year old try to yell “princess luna”? If not for her sister also yelling it, I wouldn’t have got it.)

        • William, your logic means that “ain’t”, “I suspicioned”, and “he learned them” could be equally valid.
          I suppose we could get rid of “them” as a gender- and number-neutral pronoun if we could convince the grammarians-in-control that it was a base, unlettered construction used only by conservatives, evangelicals and people who live in fly-over country.

          • Could be valid? Well, “there’s no objection to declaring them valid from their clashing with the genius of English” I would agree to. They’re not things I’m recommending, because I don’t see a need to adopt them—the last two, at least; I could see some point to having a contraction for “am not,” and “ain’t” is more common in my part of the country than “amn’t.”

            My feeling is that if a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun is wanted, “they” has long performed that function and cannot be objected to as unintuitive for English speakers. Whether you want such a thing is up to you. I’m primarily bemused by feminists who say they do want such a thing, but never suggest legitimizing singular “they,” preferring to make up artificial constructions that will confuse anyone who hasn’t been indoctrinated. Though I sometimes think that’s the point, like asking people to say “shibboleth.”

            • Shibboleths are fun. Around here, you can tell non-locals by how they try to pronounce Puyallup. And back when I lived near Philly, Bala Cynwyd was particularly effective.

            • Ain’t has a longer precedence than They/Them. I think it is just that the examples I gave have been suppressed as bad English for centuries, They/Them have been embraced for decades as “fair”

              • They have? I edit academic journals—and academia is one of the subcultures that is most concerned with that concept of fairness—and virtually none of them accepts singular “they,” even in their discussions of how to achieve gender-neutral writing. I’m not sure who you see as doing the embracing. My sense of what happens is that people spontaneously invent singular “they” in childhood because, whatever the formal rules, using “he” to refer to a person who might be female sounds awkward to them, with no ideological motive being involved.

                Incidentally, the closest I’ve seen to a coined gender-neutral pronoun system that sounded plausible was Marge Piercey’s person/per/pers/perself, as in “person must not do what person cannot.” That actually sounds like slightly strange English, not like “What did they just say?”

                • Um… it has been changed to they as neutral alternative to “he” in indeterminate subject in all my books the length of my writing, to the point it started backwashing on my writing (I hate the substitution.) Also, grammar books now give it as correct.

  15. Perhaps the goal of such linguistic confusion is to impede thought by rendering terms meaningless and by distracting from actual concepts by quibbling over trivialities. As has been said, “a point in every direction is the same as no point at all.”

  16. Control the words and language, and you control the ability to think about those things.

    There have been a few SF stories that were based around encountering cultures or races that didn’t have the words to describe concepts and were therefore unable to communicate with the protagonists.

    I believe there may be some examples here at home too. Something about the Navaho sense of time, maybe?

    English does a good job of adopting ‘foreign’ words when they capture the concept- schadenfreude and zeitgeist come to mind as do patio and sauna.

    zuk

    • Control the words and language, and you control the ability to think about those things.

      To an extent– the shaper has to make sure that things are covered, but form the implications.

      What comes to mind as an example is the stuff my daughter forms to express concepts she doesn’t have a word for yet– “pant-socks” for footy leggings, “Ho-hos” for Santa decorations.

      You can greatly hamstring folks if they have to spend a lot of time explaining that when they say “people” it includes all human beings, and isn’t just a synonym for “individuals sufficiently like myself.”

      • As odd as it may seem to a bunch of fiction fans, I really have had arguments where people insisted that “people” just applies to humans which can interact at a sufficiently high level…associated with an argument that non-persons are of lower moral worth, of course.

        • A favourite bit of dialogue from film addresses this point.

          From the Richard Lester / George MacDonald Fraser version of The Three Flashmen Musketeers:

          [D’artagnan has relieved Rochefort of his pass to England]
          Sea Captain: But this pass is only for one person.
          D’artagnan: I am only one person. [Indicating Planchet] This is a servant!
          Sea Captain: I see. All right.

    • Try The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance. It blows Babel-17 away. Oh and as a bonus, it also came up with the idea of super-cyborgs, long before this was a popular science-fictional concept.

    • I read a fascinating article about language and how it shaped thought, and what was interesting is that it doesn’t shape thought in the ways you’d think. If there isn’t a word about it, it’s apparently *easier* to think about, because you can work around it—it’s the stuff that you already have defined that shapes your thinking in ways that are difficult to overcome. Obvious examples are strongly gendered languages, such as most of the European ones; the people who speak those languages have a tendency to assign gendered tendencies to ungendered objects. Those with a feminine gender to bridges, for example, tend to assign feminine attributes to bridges, while those with a male descriptor assign male attributes.

      The amazing example, though, was a Pacific Islander tribe that has a language of absolute position, rather than relative. Instead of saying, “There’s a snake behind your foot,” they’d say, “There’s a snake a foot south-southwest of you.” And the article went on to describe how, in English cultures, if you have a hotel room with rooms built to the same plan, you’d describe a hotel room across the hall as exactly the same, but someone with an absolute position language would describe them as completely backwards.

      It’s the things you take for granted that trip you up, because they’re not as universal as you might think.

      • I can see how such a linguistic orientation would develop amongst an archipelagic people. It also makes sense that words whose meanings we (think) we know can force our thoughts into habitual routes in spite of changes in the words’ meanings, as for example when certain politicians employ words like “fair,” “investment” and “justice.”

        Ever notice how that “not as universal as you might think” hitch tends to trip up the smartest people in the room?

        • Didn’t some sailors report the sun rising in the west because they were using “that way is the sea” as a cardinal direction indicator?

          I can’t even remember if “out to sea” was the west or the east…..

    • Eh, semantic drift shows we can pound any old words into the meanings we want. It probably means different thinking, not just different linguistics.

  17. As I enter my last Finals Week, I should make a couple of observations concerning my own experiences at two North Texas colleges (Collin and UNT).

    Every single professor I encountered warned their students that misspellings in term papers and exams would result in deductions. The only time this rule was ever relaxed was in exams, and only with non-English words, names or terms (e.g. Anschluss, Vendée or hastati). The rule was rigorously enforced, too, as it was against sloppy or incorrect grammar.

    I had a couple of loony-Left profs (a minority in Nort Texas, certainly in the classes I took), but the most irritating one was the Sociology prof who posed the question, “Is gender a social construct?” (expecting an affirmative answer). My response was, “Yes, gender is a social construct, provided that you ignore every single bit of genetic research performed since the mid-1960s.”

    Not the answer she was expecting, nor desiring either. She looked as though she’d bitten into a lemon. Even better (and this was true in all my classes), the other students gave my comment a great deal of respect (because of my advanced age, I guess).

    On several occasions, I would be approached by students after class with comments like, “He didn’t answer your question properly, did he?” or “I think you’re right, and she’s wrong.” Mostly, I think they enjoyed the spluttering rage of the professors when I would point out, oh-so politely, that the worthy professor’s remark was contradicted by history (in one memorable case, by the very textbook prescribed for the course), and quoting the exact instance of refutation, by author. (“Do you think that John Keegan got it wrong, then, when he posited that…?”.or “But that’s not what Winfield Scott’s General Order No.100 said. It specifically forbade violence, including rape, on hostile civilians. Is there another historical source which contradicts this?”)

    The profs all insisted that we do the required reading before the class. Some of them were to find that such a requirement was a double-edged sword. A couple had the grace to admit that I could have taught the very course they were delivering.

    Having said all that, I have to say that about half a dozen profs were absolutely outstanding: brilliant scholars, acknowledged experts in their field (internationally, not just locally) and I not only learned a great deal, but considered it a privilege to have been a student in their class. And I made a point of telling each of them precisely that at the conclusion of the course, too. (If anyone has kids wanting to study History at UNT, please feel free to ask me for references, by email.)

    • Derailing a professor is a fun game, when done right. The best professors will take it with good humor, too.

  18. Does the attainment of your degree mean that you might return to blogging Kim? Or did that happen already and I missed it?

  19. Love it! I completely agree, and I’m glad to someone with enough cahones to say it. Biology is inescapable. What a perfect way to look at it.