Grammar and Genitals

‘The fashionable claim that “God loves all her children” is simply ridiculous. Accepting there is one, God doesn’t have genitals’

Language On the Contrary

God: He, she or it?

In his otherwise excellent Currency Wars (Portfolio, £19.99), James Rickards describes an elaborate financial war game organised by the Pentagon. At the game’s commencement, I stumbled over this line: “Each player could participate as much or as little as she liked.”

The “she” in that sentence was befuddling. Of the multiple war-game participants the author had mentioned beforehand — military, intelligence, think-tank, and Wall Street experts, all assembled to contemplate fiscal Armageddon — not one was a woman.

Rickards was deferring to a grammatical fad, one adopted throughout his text. Because English lacks a gender-neutral, third-person singular pronoun other than the inanimate “it”, convention has historically dictated that when the sex of a pronoun could be either male or female the default choice is “he”. Given that some contemporary women find this custom objectionable, a subset of writers will now systematically choose “she” instead. Fascinatingly, the majority of the authors I’ve encountered who prefer a default female pronoun in the singular are men. 

I realise these guys are trying to please, but I am not pleased. I find the fad grating.

True, the most graceful and commonplace solution to a politically polarising “he” is to construct sentences in the plural. Thus Rickards could have recast that line to read, “Players could participate as much or as little as they liked,” while retaining the same meaning. Whenever possible, I opt for the plural myself. Alternatively, you can cast generalisations in the second person, although “you do this” and “you do that” will tend to lend prose a conversational character. The more formal-sounding first-person plural can also provide an escape from this grammatical minefield. But once in a while we get ourselves into a grammatical jam, and we have to choose between “he” and “she”.

In that case, the male default of yore is at least justified by convention, and hardly a crime on a par with wife-beating or female genital mutilation. The wordier inclusion of both pronouns is still quiet and even-handed: “Each player could participate as much as he or she liked.” Anything but plain “she”.

For the conspicuous use of the female default is distracting. When I read about economics, I want to think about economics. But as soon as I trip over that jarring “she” in this compelling book about currency valuations, I cease to think about economics. I have left Rickards’s exhilarating financial war game. I get caught up instead in my own mental eye-roll: “Oh, for pity’s sake, what an arselick.”

Indeed, the grammatically hip usage alters the real content of that line. The subject is suddenly not the rules of a fiscal war game, but gender politics. In its deepest sense, Rickards’s sentence decodes, “I am a right-on dude. Now no one can accuse me of being a sexist prick.”

When I confirm that not a single participant mentioned in the American Defense Department’s theoretical exercise is a woman, the writer’s grammatical brown-nosing backfires. It serves only to highlight the fact that, despite the author’s trendy style guidelines, his professional world is overwhelmingly male. The military brass, hedge-fund managers, think-tank wonks, and investment bankers with whom he’s powwowing — they’re all men, aren’t they? “She” can participate as much as she likes, my butt. She isn’t participating at all. She gets fobbed off with a pronoun in lieu of an invitation.

I’m afraid the boys can’t win here. When men employ the universal “she”, their ostentatious sensitivity comes across as pandering — a pandering that borders on condescension. When women use “she” to reference both sexes, they seem hectoring and touchy, and they also subvert the real meaning of their text. Even if the article is about agricultural policy, an intrusively synthetic “she” diverts the reader’s attention to patriarchal bias in English. 

Privileging female pronouns is just as sexist as privileging male ones, and I’m of the anti-affirmative-action school that rejects two wrongs as making a right. Recall the equally poor solution to the dilemma of which pronoun should refer to God. The fashionable claim that “God loves all her children” is simply ridiculous. Accepting there is one, God doesn’t have genitals. If anything, God is an it.

Gradually, language adapts. In today’s casual discourse, we often say, “Each player could participate as much as they liked.” In informal writing, I, too, will opt for “they” in singular constructions, preferring inclusiveness to grammatical correctness. It’s likely this singular use of “they” will become increasingly standardised. That is an organic transformation of linguistic convention I could embrace. Meantime, forced-sounding insertions of “she” by female writers imply we’ve got an axe to grind. From male writers, all these artificial shes seem like just another form of showing off.