Battlepanda: Thank you David Gelernter and Charlotte Allen


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Thank you David Gelernter and Charlotte Allen

If it were not for David Gelernter's rabidly-argued screed against what he calls "feminist English," I would not have gotten to read these two excellent and entertaining rebuttals. One from Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log, which is a pretty comprehensive takedown of Gelernter's hilarious factual boo-boos. Having praised Jane Austen and Shakespeare to the heavens for the "purity" of their English, Gelernter decries the feminist barbarians who have imposed the singular they upon us for the sake of gender neutrality...
But his ignorance of the history of English literature on this point is breathtaking. It is quite clear that he has no idea Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents (I discussed a couple of examples here).

Gelernter also specifically singles out Austen for praise: "The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written "pure simple English." He obviously is not aware that Jane Austen is famous for her high frequency of use of of singular-anteceded they (Henry Churchyard has a list of examples here).

Gelernter thinks singular they was invented by post-1970 feminist "ideologues", rather than a use of pronouns having a continuous history going back as far as a thousand years. One might think it remarkable that someone this ignorant of the history and structure of English would nonetheless presume to pontificate, without having checked anything. But not if you read Language Log. We have noted many times the tendency to move straight to high dudgeon, skipping right over the stage where you check the reference books to make sure you have something to be in high dudgeon about.
This is most interesting to me because, as much as I detest the reactionary tone of Gelernter's piece and disagree with his assertion that "he" is simply read as neutral, I do agree that he or she is totally clunky. In the past I've mostly gone with "he" in my writing when in need of a singular pronoun, throwing a "she" in there once in a while when it's least expected to mix things up a little and keep people on their toes. However, I've not given the singular 'they' adequate consideration. Mostly because, even though I use it in conversation all the time, it's bad English, right? Enter second excellent and entertaining rebuttal of Gelernter, this time by Peter Seibel:
The last time the Academic-Industrial Complex unilaterally changed the rules of grammar was in the 18th century, when grammarians, taking a bit too much of a cue from Latin, made up a rule that pronouns had to agree in number with their antecedents, a “rule” which, in fact, had been regularly violated by such writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen to say nothing of thousands of less notable authors and, no doubt, hundreds of thousands of plain old native English speakers.
Nice. This means the natural-sounding singular they is kosher. And when you use it, you're not just writing in a smooth and non-sexist manner, you are also totally disrespecting stuffy 18th-century grammarians, which is always good times. I always find the time to boldly split an infinitive whenever I can just on principle, now that I know it's OK.

And thank you Charlotte Allen, for your brainless hit-piece on Womenkind. Without it, I would not have gotten to read Katha Pollitt's hilarious response.

For Allen, it's definitely the woman: her brain is just too puny. She cannot mentally rotate three-dimensional objects in space -- and that, as we all know, is the very definition of smarts. Funny how that definition keeps changing, as women conquer field after field that was supposed to be beyond them. In the 19th century, physicians insisted women couldn't cope with college: studying would send rushing to their brains the blood that was needed for the womb. Back then, nobody credited women with the superior verbal abilities and memories Allen says scientists now find women to possess.

True to form, she dismisses these as minor talents that only helped her "coast" through school and life. But back when the experts were explaining why women couldn't be lawyers or professors or poets (at least not very good poets), nobody said verbal skills and memory were trivial; they only became trivial when women were found to excel at them. Now the sexists diss women as inferior mental-object-rotators. I have no idea whether this is true, and whether if so it's unchangeable, but you have to admit this is a very narrow scrap of turf on which to plant the flag of manly superiority.

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