Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

The female his

with 29 comments

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Grammar tsarina Lynne Truss gets everywhere. Her most recent incarnation in Blighty is as a World Cup essayist on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today.

Here she is opining about the labyrinthine group stage points table:

There is absolutely no way a normal person can keep all that information in his head at the same time.

‘His’ head?

Many people think it’s both grammatically correct and preferable to use this male possessive determiner even when both females and males are being referred to. I disagree.

I’m prepared to bet my second best teapot that if La Truss had said:

There is absolutely no way a normal person can keep all that information in her head at the same time.

…thousands of listeners up and down the land would have looked up at their radios and said quizzically, ‘her?’ (Radio 4 listeners can be a little obsessive about language.)

So my question du jour is, why does it not sound as strange and plain wrong to subsume females under the generic ‘his’ as it would to subsume males under a generic ‘her’?

As a grammarian, Truss should know fine well that it is perfectly acceptable (and infinitely preferable) to use ‘their’ in place of the male-specific ‘his’.

In addition, she could have so easily rectified this by saying:

There is absolutely no way normal people can keep all that information in their heads at the same time.

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

She’s such a tomboy

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

Sorting the women from the girls

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?

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29 Responses

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  1. Morning Deborah,

    Perhaps La Truss was making the not unreasonable assumption that the obsessive. self-deluding, fruitcakes who believe that football in general, and the World Cup in particular, actually matter in the slightest are predominantly male?

    I agree, though – should have been “their” and, had she written it, I’m sure it would have been but, in the heat of the live radio moment, I think it’s probably forgivable.

    Ron Graves

    26/06/2010 at 11:05 am

    • Hi, Ron — thanks. I agree, forgivable if off the cuff, but these little essays of hers are definitely written and honed in advance; she’s reading them out while trying to sound as if she’s just talking naturally.

      By the way, just out of interest, are you enjoying the football?

      Deborah

      26/06/2010 at 11:11 am

      • Oddly enough, no.

        I’m quite happy not to have seen a single second of the WC – the world’s most appropriate initials. . .

        Ron

        26/06/2010 at 11:25 am

        • ‘WC’ — that’s very funny. I never thought of that! Can I interest you in the tennis at all?

          Deborah

          26/06/2010 at 12:24 pm

          • Oh dear… I loathe all ball games, mainly because I can’t see the point. So one person can hit or kick a ball better/further/more accurately than someone else. Sorry, but I just don’t see that it matters.

            I’m damn good at archery, though. Or was, until a shoulder injury put me out.

            Mind you, nothing is as dull as Nascar racing – round and round and round and rou…Zzzzzzz

            By the way, I’m not getting any updates at all from you today. As someone said in the forums, WP are so busy with all the new themes, and the whistles and bells that only a 13-year-old geek could want (I paraphrase rather a lot), they’re neglecting the nuts and bolts. I think he’s right, too.

            Ron

            26/06/2010 at 5:03 pm

            • Archery — that’s an ancient sport. I’m quite partial to the tennis, but I couldn’t actually play it to save my life.

              I didn’t know there were any problems with WP today. Very occasionally I don’t get email notification of a comment, but that’s quite rare.

              Deborah

              26/06/2010 at 9:12 pm

              • Ancient indeed – and one we made our own, though in competition the Koreans pretty much rule now.

                The English longbow was the mediaeval equivalent of the machine gun and, as the French discovered, English archers could put such a vast amount of metal in the air, so quickly, even the best-armoured knight couldn’t stand against an arrow storm it came down again. At long range it was all about volume rather than accuracy.

                I shot an unlimited compound bow in competition (unlimited allows all the gizmos you like, including a telescopic sight), though I do have a longbow with a 45lb pull, which is hard enough to draw – some of the bows taken from the Mary Rose had a pull of over 100lb – we must have been breeding some big guys in those days.

                Oh look – I’m rambling…

                Ron

                26/06/2010 at 9:35 pm

                • Ramble away — that’s really interesting, thanks, Ron. I can’t imagine the strength that must have been required to use those bows from the Mary Rose.

                  Now I’m also thinking of that Led Zeppelin song ‘Ramble On’ — I haven’t listened to that for ages. I feel a Led Zep moment coming on, so thanks for that too!

                  Deborah

                  26/06/2010 at 9:42 pm

                  • There’s a belief that the people in those days were smaller than us – this seems mostly based on the small size of surviving suits of armour. There is, however, a theory that those suits of armour are actually one-third scale demonstration pieces, built to show off the armourer’s skill.

                    Genuine suits of battle armour would have been much plainer (engraving and chasing weakens plate armour), and, for the most part, buried with their owner when the almost inevitable happened.

                    Don’t know if it’s true, but it makes more sense than a battalion of Ronnie Corbett-sized knights riding off to war – on Shetland pony-sized destriers.

                    As for archers, the length of the longbow is a good indication of the height of the archer – they were made to fit the user, and were generally just a few inches longer than they were tall.

                    Ron

                    30/06/2010 at 7:03 pm

                    • There’s no reply link on your last comment so I’ve gone here – according to the Mary Rose website, the average longbow was 1.98 metres. Making the average archer around 5′ 10″ – 6 feet tall (unless fashions have changed dramatically which is unlikely, as longbow making is obsessively traditional).

                      As for whoever used the longest of the bows, at 2.11 metres, which were probably the very heavy bows, I wouldn’t like to meet him in a dark alley.

                      Many archers, in those days, were deformed, as well as muscular – the constant stresses of shooting a heavy bow distorted their skeletons, and shoulder injuries would have been rife.

                      Oops – got stuck on the Mary Rose site and forget to take my loaf out of the oven – no harm…

                      http://www.maryrose.org/ship/ship1.htm actually, it’s a bit disappointing, but the Robert Hardy book on the subject, “Longbow” is a mine of information, especially on the 100lb plus bows, one of which Hardy managed to break. That wouldn’t have made him popular.

                      Ron

                      30/06/2010 at 7:56 pm

                    • You’re a mine of information today, Ron! So, the longbow theory supports the small demonstration armour theory, then. The plot thickens.

                      I don’t know why the reply link doesn’t appear sometimes. Very annoying.

                      PS – Except your reply did appear in the right place… curiouser and curiouser.

                      Deborah

                      30/06/2010 at 8:22 pm

                    • I’ve never heard that theory about demonstration-sized suits of armour. That’s interesting. So how tall would the archers have been (based on the length of the longbows)?

                      Deborah

                      30/06/2010 at 7:13 pm

                    • I’ve tracked down and ordered a copy of Longbow at a sensible price – see how much my memory was letting me down!

                      Ron

                      30/06/2010 at 10:10 pm

                    • Oh dear, I feel guilty now that reading one of my posts has ended up with you having to spend moolah to test your memory about a totally unrelated subject. A bit like a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere…

                      I may have to include a government health warning in future. (‘Reading this post may seriously deplete your beer money.’)

                      Deborah

                      30/06/2010 at 10:18 pm

                    • Well, since I introduced the unrelated subject, it’s probably karma – but I never need an excuse to buy books.

                      Where I do have problems is finding room – over 2,000 books in a flat with room for about 6. I keep trying to figure out what I can get rid of, to make room for another bookcase.

                      Ron

                      30/06/2010 at 11:05 pm

                    • How about that 1.98 metre bow you’ve got propped in the corner there…

                      Deborah

                      30/06/2010 at 11:31 pm

                    • Takes up the floor space of a book of matches, so not much going for it. And if I sold it, I’d probably buy more books…

                      Ron

                      30/06/2010 at 11:43 pm

                    • Hi, Ron — I thought I had replied to this ages ago, but either I pressed a wrong button or my reply disappeared into the WP ether. Anyway, I only said — I hope you enjoy the book, even if it does find fault with your memory.

                      Deborah

                      02/07/2010 at 12:09 am

  2. Um… For “WP are so busy”, read “WP are so obsessed”

    Ron

    26/06/2010 at 5:05 pm

  3. “There is absolutely no way any normal person can keep all that information in mind at the same time.”

    Yuck to “their” with a singular pronoun.

    Michael Farrell

    26/06/2010 at 7:01 pm

    • Hi, Michael — yes, that’s a good alternative too. In most cases there’s a way round things if using ‘their’ to mean ‘his/her’ doesn’t appeal. Thanks for that suggestion.

      Deborah

      26/06/2010 at 9:18 pm

  4. I recall as a child being taught to use ‘his’ when referring to a person when it could refer to anyone not for certain female.’Mankind’ too. At age 7 or so, it really seemed unimportant and I didn’t question it as a not so subtle hint that the female was inferior. But by the time I was a teenager, I realized it was a disgusting tribute to our patriarchal society. Now I say ‘her or his,’ or ‘his or her’ if not feeling bold, but mainly try to keep it plural so I don’t have to specify sex.

    Lisa

    26/06/2010 at 8:51 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — many thanks for your comments on this. I vividly remember being taught at school to begin formal/official letters with the salutation ‘Dear Sir’. My request to start mine with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ was unceremoniously refused. As mentioned above, there’s usually a way round the problem to ensure females aren’t excluded. It’s always good to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

      Deborah

      26/06/2010 at 9:32 pm

  5. Deborah, I appreciate the opportunity to fine tune my punctuation, grammar, and writing.

    In terms of gender bias, do you have a fix for quotes like: “All man’s difficulties are caused by his inability to sit, quietly, in a room by himself.” -Blaise Pascal

    It seems we are required to quote as is.

    Looking forward to learning more from you.

    Sandra Lee

    27/06/2010 at 12:03 am

    • Hi, Sandra — you’re very welcome here and thank you for your kind words.

      That’s such an interesting question and I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer. However, here are my thoughts:

      My instinct has always been to leave the words of others unchanged. Otherwise, it begins to feel as if I am adopting a type of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’, the language used in Orwell’s novel 1984 as an instrument of repression and control and also, dangerously, to reconstruct the past.

      One of the most influential and moving passages in the English language, the Declaration of Independence, itself contains sexist language:

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government. . .

      Interestingly, the passage segues from ‘man/men’ to ‘people’. But should it be re-written now? I don’t believe so.

      To highlight the extreme end of this retrospective re-writing spectrum, Orwell said of this passage that:

      It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word ‘crimethink’. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.

      You quote Pascal as an example. I am not a translator, but among the many challenges involved in translation work must be what to do about the kind of sexist language you have cited. I am not sure what the answer is. Perhaps to translate generic male expressions into gender-neutral ones where appropriate? If so, I feel the translator would have to include an explanation of their approach and method.

      Otherwise, there is always scope to add footnotes/provisos when using quotes which use language that now feels uncomfortable or just plain wrong.

      Thanks again, Sandra. This is a fascinating and important topic.

      Deborah

      27/06/2010 at 11:51 am

  6. I have to take my hat off to the French for creating a partial solution to this problem. As you know, the bête noir (or at least one of them!) of anyone learning French grammar is the fact that all nouns have genders. In the example above, “head” is feminine and the possessive pronoun or the article, whichever you used – (it should be the article in this example) would reflect that, regardless of the gender of the subject of the sentence. You are right that translation can be tricky and frustrating. It’s never literal and has to express the essence of what the person is saying. In the example of the Pascal quote, I think the question a translator would face if translating it from French, is: Is Pascal referring only to men and meaning to exclude women? Or does he mean the more inclusive “mankind”? And then translate accordingly and therefore, subjectively. Thanks for the interesting discussion.

    Jo-Anne

    27/06/2010 at 2:47 pm

    • Hi, Jo-Anne — how nice to see you again. Thank you very much for your extremely interesting and useful analysis. I completely agree with your take on how the translator should approach their task.

      Deborah

      27/06/2010 at 3:09 pm

  7. Hey, you’re welcome. I’m thinking that I’m wrong in saying that translation is *never* literal; I’m sure sometimes it is, although that would be the exception 🙂

    Jo-Anne

    27/06/2010 at 7:48 pm


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