Gender and Language — Revisiting Advice I Posted in 1998

When I was in college and active in a Catholic student group, I remember noticing that a second edition of the hymnal Glory and Praise rewrote lyrics, replaced many generic references to “men” or “brothers” with synonyms like “all” or “fam’ly” (elided to two syllabus).  Sometimes this meant rewriting the rhymes, or occasionally leaving a line that referred to “brothers” and “sons” and adding a parallel verse that addressed “sisters” and “daughters.” That edition still referred to God as Father, and retained references to Jesus as masculine, so it was a pretty mild revision.

The song “Be Not Afraid,” as I first learned it, contained the line “You shall speak your words to foreign men and they will understand,” which was cleverly rewritten to “You shall speak your words in foreign lands, and all will understand.”

However, that same song had a line “And if wicked men insult and hate you, all because of me,” but that line was left untouched in the second edition.  I seem to recall a handful of other instances in which specific, negative gendered references to men remained. The third edition cleared most of those up; the line now reads “And if wicked tongues…”

One reason the English language is so hard for non-native speakers to learn is because English borrows readily from many different languages, especially in big cities full of people who learned English as adults and carried over into their everyday lives elements of their own native languages.  We don’t have a centralized board that rules on whether “based off of” is an acceptable synonym for “based on.”

In Fall of 1998, I posted a handout on gender-neutral language, arguing that

No matter what I say, people will still go on talking about “women lawyers” and “women supreme court justices.” And while I may wince a little — deep inside — when I hear someone say “Whoever it was left their car running,” A far more important, more lasting point is that when push comes to shove, grammar changes to meet the needs of its users. —Gender-Neutral Language Tips

While popular culture suggests that English teachers are stuffy and traditional when it comes to grammar, the more a person studies grammar, the more likely that person is to see their job as to study how people use English in various contexts, rather than to promote rules to enforce any one context.

In that handout I first posted over 20 years ago, I noted how in the 1960s, Star Trek went “Where no man has gone before,” but by the 80s the phrase was “Where no one has gone before.”

In a comment I posted in 2018, I added,

I teach my students not to make assumptions, even if they’re statistically as safe as the one you present. Most soldiers and chess grandmasters are men, but some are women. Most rapists are men, but some women are convicted of rape. Most victims of sexual assault are female, but some men are victims. Most nurses and kindergarten teachers and single parents are women, but some are men. And some people are gender-nonconforming in other, more complex ways. I teach my students “verify or duck,” so if they don’t actually know someone’s gender, it’s just not good journalism to assume.

Here’s a thoughtful analysis of pronouns, from an English expert who imagines 10 years from now, looking back on the issue of self-chosen pronouns. Short-term trend, or a sign of a fundamental change in the language?

So if you’re at a meeting of conservatives, virtue-signaling might mean aligning yourself with the Founders, the original meaning of the Constitution, and time-honored views of the meaning of marriage; as well as dismissing newfangled ideas about transgender rights. If you’re at a meeting of progressives, virtue-signaling might mean the embrace of bold new views toward transgender rights, put-downs of those who oppose same-sex marriage, and maybe even mockery of those who would lionize the Founders, many of whom were slaveholders.

It might also mean, in liberal circles, the declaration that you reject the old idea that there are only boys and girls, men and women in this world, and that anything else is a freak of nature. That’s the binary view of humanity. The progressive idea is a nonbinary view that doesn’t exclude the small segment of society that conservatives think of as having a curable “gender dysphoria.” A more extreme nonbinary view might be that these are the people, more likely, who should be lionized.


It’s a kind of virtue-signaling — a declaration of solidarity with transgender rights and post-postmodernism. To conservatives, it might be a kind of vice-signaling — a symbol of craven faddishness.

What will it look like in the long term? Nobody knows the future of their address blocks. (His address blocks?) A decade from now, it might be said, “Oh, yes, that must be from the early 2020s. Everybody was doing that back then.” Or it might be that by then almost everybody does it, so that it’s hardly noticeable except to the most reactionary people. So much depends on the success or failure of the movement. –Bryan A. Garner, LA Review of Books

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