Inclusive language is a liberal idea most often espoused by feminists, who feel they are opressed not only by actions but also by symbolism in language.

Probably the best known example is the inclusion of the term "Ms." in the English language. The idea was that the term "Miss" when refering to a woman was intended to tell men that she did not have a husband (or owner). Ms. was meant to give women the option of not being branded.

I never gave inclusive language much thought until I experienced it on a level greater than the one described above. My professor for a course titled "Understanding Scripture" was a nun, or more percisely a nun who belonged to the Seven Sisters of Mercy.

After assigning a term paper on Old Testament prophets she said we needed to use inclusive language (in this case no mention of God using His or Him or any other masculine descriptive words). She also mentioned that it was to be used in both in our prose and when quoting from the Bible.

I had difficulty with this on several levels:

  1. When was it ever decided that it would be okay to quote something and then change the quote without reference?
  2. What ever happened to the Bible being sacred?
  3. The act of changing the gender from masculine to unisex, implies that we are now more evolved than those who wrote the Bible.
  4. I may be wrong in how the word has evolved, but isn't man short for human?

I went to voice my concerns to the professor and was hugged and told, "Oh it's all right. You wouldn't understand. You're a man."

After trying to take the comment in stride, we finally worked out an agreement. I could include the masculine words when quoting, but would have to use inclusive language when writing my own thoughts.

The theory behind inclusive language is that the language we use doesn't just describe the world around us - it shapes our view of it as well. To call the leader of a meeting the chairman is to deny the possibility that a woman can do the job.

Anyone who speaks more than one language recognizes this concept. There are ideas which are natural in one language, and inexpressible in another. For instance, the Ancient Romans had no word for gray. To them, it wasn't a color of its own, just a shade of greeny-black.

English deals very smoothly with such conceptual gaps, either by borrowing words from elsewhere, or by coining new ones. We didn't have a word for savior faire, so someone who needed to express the idea stole the term from the French. Neologisms are all over the place to describe things we've invented since Shakespeare's day, like the internet and its websites.

So why is inclusive language so damn ugly?

There are graceful ways of avoiding gender specific language, like using chair rather than chairman, but there's always someone holding out for chairperson. So many inclusive phrases are grating: spokesperson, herstory, perchild. Nor is grammar safe - the practice of switching the gender of the generic pronoun between paragraphs can make text effectively unreadable.

I finally figured it out. If we make inclusive language easy on the ear, it is effectively transparent. Instead of hearing the language, we hear the meaning. Although graceful inclusive language serves the goal of excluding specifically masculine usages, this is not the true intent of some of its supporters.

Truly effective inclusive language calls attention to itself, reminding the listener (or reader) of the wider feminist agenda. "Look," says the subtext, "I'm being politically correct. I may be talking about running a meeting, but what I'm really thinking about is the historic oppression of women."

Don't do it. It messes up the signal to noise ratio.

Badly done any kind of language can be ugly. But is sexism not ugly? I listen to people saying "Suppose the man gets paid five pounds an hour, then you can calculate his weekly...", and I'm not thinking about the calculation, I'm going "Person! Person! She's not a man, she's a person. How do you know who this person is?"

Good language has to be natural. Good language has to be non-sexist. You have to get both those right, otherwise it's no good. The natural way of replacing the offensive 'man' is to replace it with 'person'. It's easy, it takes no thinking, no effort, no twisting. The postperson delivered this while I was out.

In some cases there may be equally natural, and shorter forms available: chair for chairperson, fisher for fisherperson. By all means use them. But don't hunt around and rack your brains for something "simpler" than postperson.

Don't complain about the language being ugly when it's the attitude that's ugly. If we can get to the point where firepeople and postpeople don't ring any bells, we've made some progress. We've done it with Negro/Coloured/Black: it's not tortured and convoluted to choose the current term there and discard ones you might have grown up with.

The simplest and best way of using invisibly gender-free language is to use "they" whenever you can. Everyone should ask themself whether they do enough in this respect. It's so easy, it's clean, natural, idiomatic, correct, everyday English, and it's very widely applicable. Only in a minority of cases can you not use plain-English "they".

What typically happens in academic writing now is not a forced switching of pronouns, but a use of "she" as a default of first choice, particularly in fields like science or mathematics where females should be encouraged to feel at home. In economics, often they use "she" for the producer and "he" for the consumer, to point out that the balance of power doesn't have to be as it is.

An engrained male default is sexism pure and simple. Equality is attainable. Just get used to it, and do it. There is no alternative.

In a subsequent post now deleted, taschenrechner made a point about languages that have grammatical gender. In a gendered language like Russian or French a word, any word, for "writer" or "teacher" must perforce be masculine or feminine. English does not have this problem. In English we have gender-neutral terms "author", "poet" etc. What is then objectionable, just as in Russian, is to use unnecessary female forms authoress, poetess. Authors are not male. Jane Austen was an author, Emily Dickinson was a poet. The -ess form tends to be dismissive: a good poet, as female poets go.
Another reply (I shouldn't be doing this). Anyone who was "taught" that they is just plural was taught badly. They have inherited a wrong, pedantic, recent tradition with no basis in fact or practice. Singular they is used comfortably by, among many many others: Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Swift, Defoe, Fielding, Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Dickens, Scott, George Eliot, Thackeray, Byron, Shelley, Stevenson, Trollope, Mrs Gaskell, Ruskin, Whitman, Shaw, Wilde, Kipling, Wells, Fitzgerald, Wharton, and Orwell. It is and always has been standard, normal, correct English.
To push this a bit further: the insult inherent in the use of explicitly female words (as opposed to explicitly male, so-called "inclusive" ones) is one result of a deeper gendered value system inherent in the language. Words associated with the female tend to acquire a stigma over time, even if in their original usage they were not offensive.

Consider the following pairs of words: spinster/bachelor, sir/madam (which one runs a whorehouse?), king/queen (which one wouldn't you call Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dark alley?). Consider, also, the fact that men frequently insult each other with no stronger words than those used simply to designate female persons (girl, lady, woman, etc.); e.g., "He cried like a little girl," or "If any of you ladies wants to go home, now's your chance." It may be insulting to call someone a bibliotyekarsha, but if so, this is probably a reflection that being female is in and of itself considered shameful.

Here's a final note on the supposed "inclusivity" of male language. Without making any judgment calls on the truth or falsity of the statements made, notice your reaction to the following two sentences:

Man is the only animal that rapes.

Man typically begins to menstruate at twelve or thirteen years of age.

Despite the fact that both sentences pretty much refer to only one gender, the first is "legitimate" whereas the second usually strikes the reader as ridiculous. Male language does not "include" the female, it eclipses her.

I don't mind saying "person" instead of man when it's a word on its own. I don't even mind the slightly odd mutations "chairperson" and "spokesperson". However, using the word "they" instead of "he" or "she" never sits right for me.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who automatically reads "they" as the plural pronoun it was originally intended to be. I was taught as a child that "they" was plural, and as with most grammatical oddities, it requires several more brain cycles to resolve.

English unfortunately lacks a gender-neutral personal pronoun. We've comandeered another personal pronoun which already has its own meaning to fill the gap, when we really should have invented a new word a long time ago. I'm not even sure a new word would have settled neatly into my brain, but it would probably stress it less than plural personal pronouns for singular objects.

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