Language and Gender

by D.G. Boland ©1998

I cannot understand why, in our efforts to be fair to the fairer side of our sexual nature, we have resorted to the use of "they" in place of the traditional "he" as the pronoun for "man" used generically. There are, as is obvious (or is it still?), two quite distinct meanings of "man" in the English language, so that the word is ambiguous and its meaning needs to be taken (like many other words) from the context. This is not the case in other languages, such as the Romance languages. This may be illustrated from the Latin from which they are derived, where the two meanings are signified by two quite different words, "homo" and "vir"; the first referring to the genus "man" which does not distinguish between male and female, the second referring to the male only.

Correspondingly, the meaning of "he" in English is twofold, depending on whether we are intending to refer to man as "homo" or as "vir". It is called a personal pronoun in either case, in the former case to signify that we are talking about the individual person, male or female, but in the latter case to signify that we are talking about an individual male (person).

There are two ways, however, in which we use the word "man" in a generic sense. We may use it with reference only to the nature of man, and not to any particular individual. In this case we should more properly make use of the impersonal pronoun "it", but we generally stick with the "he" (relying again on the context to avoid any confusion of ideas). Thus we might say: "Man is the noblest of beings; he ranks above all others" or "Man is the only animal which can fashion tools; these he makes for his own use". Here we are not referring to any particular man or woman, but what is common to them only, their human nature. No particular man or woman is the only animal that makes tools.

There is a second usage of the word "man", however, which is "distributive". This occurs where we do not intend to refer to the nature as such, or by itself, but to each and every individual member of the species, as when we say: "Man is a rational being" or "Man is a maker of tools". For every man, in as much as he (or she) is a man, is rational and a maker (potentially) of tools (even if he never actually makes one).

According to the sense of the terms "man" and "he" in both these kinds of expressions, the "or she" is really superfluous. But that phrase, or some other alternative to the simple use of "he" (and related words) is what current usage is insisting upon, in the mistaken belief that by themselves they imply masculinity! This unnecessary refinement (from the viewpoint of elementary grammar and logic) becomes somewhat cumbersome and tedious. In recent times we have seen all sorts of makeshift alternatives proposed and used, such as "he/she", "she/he", "s/he", "she" used instead of "he", or alternately, until finally we seem to have settled on the plural "they".

This blatant grammatical incorrectness (for the sake of "political" correctness) is rather irritating, for we thereby compound a mental confusion with a solecism. One doesn’t of course demand perfection in grammatical expression and a certain amount of looseness in the application of the rules is healthy. It shows that the use of language is something social and living. Thus no one really worries too much about using the plural "they" in the context of distributive nouns (such as "everyman" or "everybody") when strictly we should use the singular, for it is not very different from collective nouns like "all men" which is plural.

To some extent then the use of "they" is not of any consequence. The confusion on which it is based is natural enough and merely a matter of inadvertence. But the substitution of "they" universally for "he", wherever the word "man", or some compound including it, is used, yet no exclusive maleness is intended by the language, is quite deliberate and highly artificial. It is defended on the pretext of rendering language more inclusive, as if the female is left out of the discussion when the words "man" and "he" etc are used. Such reasoning, as can be readily appreciated, is quite sophistical. The female, by definition and long usage, is already included in the sense of the word, which is the whole point of the distinction of the two meanings first mentioned above.

All that it does is target and destroy the inclusive meaning of "man" and thus elevate the exclusive meaning into the only one, thereby instantly "creating" a whole host of exclusive words. Then a witch hunt is conducted to hunt down all those (newly uncovered) exclusive uses of the word "man", like "mankind", "chairman", "manpower", and such like. The end result is quite disturbing. For it turns confusion into entrenched error; by reducing the sense of "man" according to what is common to male and female ("Man" and "Everyman") to the (much inferior) sense of "man" as a mere male human being. Far from affirming the equality, indeed identity, of female and male in terms of common humanity, it exaggerates the difference to the point of opposition.

There may very well be unfair discrimination against women, and even systematic injustice in the treatment of women generally vis-a-vis men within society. But one should be careful to identify the real causes of such (which we may find indeed include sections of the society where not only men but also women are in fact privileged). Given power man will surely abuse it, and "man" here is not to be taken in the "exclusive" sense. The above confusion about the different senses of the word "man", if anything, plays into the hands of the real culprits, by distracting attention away from their particular roles in the exploitation of women (and many men too) to some bogey Man.

Similar considerations apply in the religious sphere, for no aspect of social living, it seems, is immune from this man-made confusion. There would appear, however, to be even less cause to confuse the two meanings of "man" in religious language usage, because of its universal message. The language of the Scriptures is riddled with references to "man" and even "men" where it is clear that the generic sense is intended. Christ came to save all "men". The very title "Son of Man" would in fact be theologically incorrect if "man" were to be taken in the sense of male human being. Nonetheless, the same "political" campaign of correcting the language is vigorously pursued also in respect of religious language and even the Scriptures themselves.


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 1999. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 1.
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
Centre for Thomistic Studies, Sydney, Australia.
We would be grateful to receive a copy of any republication.