Monday, February 18, 2013

De-Gender the Manhole Market!

A fellow named Jerry Davich has penned a kind of semi-reactionary screed over at the Post Tribune wherein he kvetches about the increasing political correctness of gendered language:

Should the word “manhole” be made into “utility hole”? Or “ombudsman” into “ombuds”? “Penmanship” to “handwriting”? “Freshman” to “first-year student”?

In our society’s snail-slow but ever-steady march toward political correctness, this is what is taking place across the country by state lawmakers, including Indiana

My question of the day to you: Is this merely an over-reactive response from state officials to appease female voters and progressive-minded constituents? Or is it smartly keeping our dusty laws and old documents in lockstep with the current times?

To answer his question, it's probably somewhere in the middle. There are certainly women who get offended when the term "manhole" is used, but in my experience they are fairly few and far between. Just the same, there's a slow but steady push towards gender-neutral language in both public officialdom and private conversation.

I've written about it around here somewhere or another, I think---I'm pretty much okay with using "he" as the dominant pronoun in my writing, such as "Someone left behind his eyeglasses," or, "If you raise a child right, he will succeed." But I've also encountered people who use "she" as their preferred pronoun, and I find that perfectly acceptable as well. A third set of people will continually switch between "he" and "she" within an extended piece, and I like that, too.

What I do find exasperating is when language is de-gendered to the detriment of the language itself. I have no problem with the shortening of "chairman" to "chair," and I don't mind going from "mailman" to "mail carrier," even though you gain two syllables on the latter.

But things like, say, "repairperson" gross me out. Repairperson is so horribly clunky, and there's never any reason to use it in polite company. "Technician" is fine. We don't have to strive for gender inclusiveness and be total buffoons in the pursuit of it.

Another technique that really irritates me is one given by Davich later in the article: "repeat the noun," i.e. do away with pronouns altogether. For example, he shows:

An individual who makes an investment in a business enterprise and erroneously but in good faith believes that the individual has become a limited partner in the enterprise is not liable for the enterprise’s obligations.”

That's pretty uncomfortable. You can't erase hundreds of years of linguistic infrastructure. Pronouns were invented to avoid the repetition of those pesky nouns. The author of the above paragraph should make a choice: use "he" or "she" as the pronoun and be done with it. Or, if push comes to shove, use "he or she." It's not hard.

Most people these days seem content to use the term "they" in place of any gender. Their justification is usually that "language evolves" and that we should just accept "they" as the new all-dominant pronoun. These people are liars. Do not use "they" to refer to singular entities. I've even witnessed people using the term they to describe someone whose gender they know. It's the height of silliness. Use singular pronouns to refer to singular people. Use just one, or alternate between "he" or "she," or use "he and she" every time if you're truly uncomfortable with it. But let's not mangle speech here, people.

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