The craven feminine pronoun

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The Times Literary Supplement diarist who hides behind the initials “J.C.” makes this catty remark (issue of January 6, 2017, page 36) about Sidney E. Berger’s The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary of Book Collectors:

“Predictions were that the Internet would do away with dealers’ catalogs and it is true that many a dealer has gone from issuing catalogs to listing her whole stock online.” Bookselling and book collecting are among the world’s stubbornly male pastimes — deplorable, no doubt, but less so than the use of the craven pronoun throughout The Dictionary of the Book (Rowman & Littlefield, $125).

J.C. (who, Jonathan Ginzburg informs me, is widely known to be an author, book dealer, and bibliophile named James Campbell) is objecting to the use of she as a gender-neutral pronoun. And you can just guess that a snooty writer in TLS who quibbles about other people’s grammar choices would hate singular they. J.C. would probably regard it as “abominable”, the way Simon Heffer does. Which can only mean that he advocates use of the traditional practice of he as the gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun, the one that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls “purportedly sex-neutral he (see pp. 491–493).

(Amazingly, a friend of mine who is a female bookseller seems to agree with J.C.! There’s no accounting for the taste of prescriptivists.)

CGEL says “purportedly sex-neutral” because examples like this show that the sex-neutral claim about he is just false:

Was it your father or your mother who could hold his breath for four minutes?

Why does that sound so ridiculous? Under the hypothesis that he can be neutral as to the sex of the referent it should be fine. By modus tollens, we therefore conclude that he isn’t sex-neutral, ever: it conveys masculine gender every time, and those who advocate it as an epicene pronoun are simply lying to you.

CGEL advises against “purportedly sex-neutral she on similar grounds. But that’s not why J.C. rejects it. I think it’s pretty clear that he thinks that using purportedly sex-neutral she types you as a spineless vassal of the feminazis, a pathetic excuse for a man who lacks the cojones to stand up to women and tell them to move to the back of the grammatical bus and face the facts: the masculine always allows for a reference that includes the unmentioned feminine but the reverse does not hold. Deal with it, bitches.

J.C. does, in passing, provide us with a new and temptingly snappy technical term for the gender-bending consciousness-raising counterpart, purportedly sex-neutral she, at least for those not allergic to irony: in J.C.’s honor we can call it the craven feminine.

Which do you favor? The boorish he?The craven she? Or the sensible person’s choice, singular they? Everyone has a right to make their own choice.


Tip of the hat: thank you, K.T.



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