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Every man for herself

November 16, 2010

My sister said something recently that impressed me greatly. In the course of an otherwise routine telephone conversation, she responded to a joke about getting to the last bit of a dessert by saying, “Every man for herself.” We were laughing, but she wasn’t facetious in her language.

Every man for herself.

While our people may not all be outstanding intellects, literacy is one mark of our character, and it is a yardstick by which we evaluate others. Whether one has Dick Francis or de Tocqueville on the nightstand, one reads, and as Lang Phipps commented, books and learning are highly valued.

What attends this, what with all of the private schooling (my old schools, at least, always had outstanding English faculties), is that our people tend to be on the side of good language and opposed to political correctness, bureaucratic double-speak, and middle-class euphemising. A spade, always, is called a spade.

This fondness for the integrity of our English tongue can present something of a problem in the twenty-first century where gender is concerned. Most of the time, no one need consider it, but what to do about the third-person personal pronouns? The resolution of these questions leads often to awkward constructions, with any number of which the reader will be familiar.

Most correctly, the masculine he/his is used when the personal pronoun stands in for a noun of indefinite gender (After the conference, each person went his own way.). This has become largely unpalatable in contemporary speech, leading to the abysmal and confused, After the conference, each person went their own way. More often, we see the singular one paired with a plural pronoun: After the conference, everyone went their own way. Terrible.

Although the best usage may read, If a student wants to do well in school, he must study hard, what of the women? Even the hardest and most formal among us have mothers, sisters, and (sometimes) wives. A former French teacher and secondary-school counselor of mine advocated that women use she in such circumstances, leaving he for the men. To my mind, this has always seemed eminently workable.

Madeline L’Engle, surely one of our people, had something to say on this matter, and it bears repetition here.

I’m going to be thinking about man, and his part in the world, fairly frequently in these pages, and I want to make it quite clear, right away, that I Madeleine, sex: f, wife and mother, am just as much MAN as is Hugh, sex: m, husband and father, and that I’m not about to abdicate my full share in mankind. One of the most pusillanimous things we of the female sex have done throughout the centuries is to have allowed the male sex to assume that mankind is masculine.1

What my sister has offered, then, is an example of the right use of English, which rejects the doublespeak of the politically correct, and which yet makes a political statement both subtle and profound. This blogger’s opinion has long been that if a word is misunderstood, or understood in an outdated way, one should not change the word but change the way in which the word is comprehended. Madeleine L’Engle believed this, and so does my little sister. Well done.

1. Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), 7.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    November 12, 2012 3:58 pm

    This is great! Going to share it with my English students.

Trackbacks

  1. Every man for herself, II « The WASP Manifesto

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