Ingham County, MI

“Do you realize,” asked a friend and former colleague of mine—he was an exacting teacher and scholar and also a man of infinite jest—“do you realize what a serious intellectual problem it is to confuse one with more than one?”

I’ll call him “John,” because that was his name, and may God rest his once-wayfaring soul for pointing out that something is amiss when, say, a person runs their hands along the fender of an old Cadillac and says, “look at the workmanship on this cars!”

I notice the “word-processing” program I’m using doesn’t flinch at “their” or “this” in the previous sentence. No squiggly green line appears to tell me I’ve committed two offenses against number. (Soon no associate dean will appear to tell me that I’ve committed two offenses against number. But sit tight on that. One thing at a time.)

John wrote precise sentences and lectured in a careful systematic way. He remarked with amusement on the once-odd but now-ubiquitous phenomenon of the career academic who cannot talk in a straight line. He believed that a student leaving class should know more than she knew walking in.

Permit me to try that last sentence another way: “He believed that a student leaving class should know more than they knew walking in.”

Again, my “word-processing” program is indifferent to “they” as the pronoun referring back to “student” (it is indifferent to both versions of the sentence, whether I use “she” or “they”), probably because the program is hoping to climb the ladder from IT into “faculty leadership” or administration.

To be fair I should say that it is also indifferent to this version of the sentence: “He believed that a student leaving class should know more than he knew walking in.” But anyone with a pulse, however faint, knows that whereas the first two versions are acceptable—the first on the logic of reparations for past wrongs and the second on another kind of “logic” altogether, about which more later—the mere scent of the third will draw out from all the hovels and dens and caves of academia the ravenous censors who have too much time on their paws and too little sense in their heads.

For bear in mind that the guardians of the academy, the Keepers of Permitted Thought, have one thing in common: they all made high marks in Offense-Taking, nine hours of which are required of all Master’s candidates in all graduate programs everywhere. You can’t get into a PhD program if you’re not outraged. And some of these Keepers, the really good ones, even majored in Offense-Taking as undergraduates, initially at expensive east-coast schools but now pretty much everywhere, especially at those really progressive institutions where young people, firmly in command at age nineteen of the best that’s been thought and said, are permitted to build their own majors, majors that typically combine the most rigorous offense-taking classes and the best offense-taking practices from all the disciplines that offer coursework in it, chiefly Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies, Anthropology, and English. (If you can’t learn to be royally pissed, even at imagined slights, you’ll never be a good academic.)

Now John of blessed memory used “she” because he taught at a women’s college, so he had good reason to speak as he did. What he said corresponded to What Is. He took it as axiomatic that a man (or woman) shouldn’t speak nonsense—a rule, be it noted, that would silence anyone running a committee or faculty meeting—but he did, as I said, regard confusion of number to be a serious intellectual problem, and therefore he would not permit it, especially not on student essays, where in the age of rampant lunacy he could still exercise a little influence.

In those days the neutral “he” was still being used but was under considerable pressure to drink hemlock. And it is important to emphasize that the erstwhile masculine pronoun had been used as a neutral pronoun. It was so used by such formidable women as Flannery O’Connor, Iris Murdoch, Winefred Nowottny, and Elizabeth Anscombe—apparently without discomfort, unease, or offense to the user herself—or, rather, “the user themselves,” or “the user themself,” or “the user herselves.”

But this did not satisfy a great many people of lesser intellect. So, by and by, it was replaced with fairer if clumsier idioms: “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or her,” and, inevitably, “her or his,” which was a reparation for always putting “his” ahead of “her” in “his or her” but that, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is clearly an especial aural offense except to those whose ears are mere handles on a jughead.

I call the practice “hurrorhizzing.” I’ll be the first to admit that it deserves even worse scorn than that ugly term intends, but not even the Bar Jester can hit every opportunity for scorn out of the park. Sometimes the wind ain’t right, or the bar’s out of Beam.

But now “he or she” and the like have also been handed the hemlock, not because the hearing impaired have finally got their cochlear implants and heard for themselfs how grating such expressions are to aural perception, or how offensive to elegant prose, but because such idioms stand in the way of an important political movement that, like all important political movements, gets to be on the right side of history.

Case in point. (The “word-processing” program recognizes that as a sentence fragment and tells me to “consider revising,” presumably because the program is independent-clause-centric. As an academic I should be offended. I should be stirring myself up into an augury of frustrate bitchery. If I were really good, and really on the right side of history, I’d end my sentences with exclamation points.)

Case in point: (That’s better. The program prefers the colon to the period, as do I. I just wrote it the first way to see if the program had gone to sleep on me.)

Case in point: I read recently a few pages of revision to a faculty handbook. The revisions eliminate the hurrorizzing, which at least had the benefit of not confusing one with more than one, and substitute in its stead what is now being called “the singular they” and its variations. So: “The tenure candidate should include their Curriculum Vitae, three letters of …”

And immediately, like Pinocchio’s distant spooky kinsman in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I smell a child, a well-paid child, also known as a dean, except the fustercluck movie I’m in might as well be called Shitty Titty Wang Bang, because this, obviously, is not an attempt to reduce the clumsiness in the language brought on by too much hurrorhizzing; it is—well, let’s play the game for a moment—it is an attempt by an administrator to use their executive power to institutionalize “the singular they” on behalf of all right-thinking offense-takers whose hearts bleed for all the many people so demagnetized that they can’t decide whether to stand or sit while peeing. (The “word-processing” program has not asked me to consider revising the phrase “…by an administrator to use their …”)

And that, my friends at the bar, is the truth. The “singular they” is a solution not to sexism—and certainly not to linguistic club-footedness—but to the oppressive insensitivity of, say, those insensate farmers, who, although they feed us, also expect a bull to know his business around a cow (or is it “expect a bull to know their business around a cows”?) without ever asking what the poor bulls and cows identify as.

Because, you see, if you’re an academic it’s important that you not know how nature works. Only then can the “singular they” do its job, which is to signal the triumph of the Gender Benders.

The Bar Jester pauses for emphasis: none of this is driven by concern for precision of expression or grammatical integrity. It is driven by a high-toned pious sympathy for the twenty-seven genders that have popped up since breakfast. (John of blessed memory would put on a wry ironic smile and issue a warning: the number could increase by twenty-seven more before you publish this, so be fluid). No. It is driven by the unimpeachable justice of being able to say, if you wish to say it, “look at the workmanship on this cars.”

Concerning this confusion I wish to say three things, but the reader (and I use the singular not as a social engineer with ears made only for lifting but as a Bar Jester: advisedly) will have to wait with bated breath for the next installment.

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and co-editor of Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (FPR Books, 2018). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Yes. Yesssssss. Join me on the Dark Side. Critique of Grammar is but the first step. Something something fulfill your destiny.

    (Or so says the FPR commentariat. I dunno. YMMV. I suspect the post has a Broader Point.)

    And because if my breath remains bated for too long I turn an unpleasant shade of blue, might I suggest, “He believed that students leaving class should know more than they knew walking in.” (And “[T]enure candidates should include their Curriculum Vitae, three letters of …”)

    It won’t work in every situation, but is does allow the people who care about not misgendering to do their thing, while you do yours. And since we’re not in Canada, there’s unlikely to be a law against you doing yours.

  2. Cash sang “Well, It’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56
    ’57, ’58’ 59′ automobile
    It’s a ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67
    ’68, ’69, ’70 automobile.”
    Fits. Don’t know what your problem with Cadillacs happens to be. What, you drive a Prius or something?

  3. My much-loved Strunk & White (4th Edition) of course maintains the traditional usage, but it occurs to me that subsequent editions won’t remain safe from the meddling of the Eternally Offended, alas and alack!

    Bravo, Doc!

  4. I suppose one could say that, as with the Oxford comma, the key guiding principle should be clarity, and one should always attempt to be clear, and that how readers interpret what is written drifts over time, so writers can/should adapt. The singular they is common enough now that it may be aesthetically jarring to many, but it doesn’t really cause confusion. However, if we call this the general singular they, what we might call the particular singular they does not in fact have this attribute–how is one to possibly parse something like “Go over to Bob’s house and give them their sweater back”?
    Oh, well. Just put a sign up outside your office saying “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient” and hope that you’re old enough that your career is over before the Red Guards come for you.

  5. Jason,

    I’ve been nothing but pleased with most of the pieces I’ve read on FPR to date — in fact, as a young man with conservative tendencies who doesn’t fit neatly into any of the cookie cutter ideologies of the day, FPR has helped me develop my thinking immensely. In FPR, I’ve finally found the thoughtful, honest, truth- and good-seeking conservative voice that I’ve been so desperately craving.

    Your article has given me serious reason to reconsider the sentiment expressed above. It strikes me as a piece that has submitted entirely to emotion and that is driven by passive-aggressive anger. You have to understand that the only possible purpose this piece could serve is to make people who already agree with you nod their heads and pump their fists. Anyone who dares to acknowledge that the human experience of sexuality, and its effect on personality and identity, might be more complex than whether or not there is 1 car or 2 cars in the driveway, will certainly be turned off by this piece. As they should be.

    Surely, the college administrators who promote this type of language reform, at least some portion of them (probably most, or all of them) believe they are doing some sort of good for the world. They might be confused and misguided (as I believe), but they are not rubbing their hands and laughing an evil laugh as they try to confuse our language and our understanding of reality beyond repair. They are responding to a genuine problem — what should we do about the sizable portion of our population who feel alienated and isolated, even dehumanized, by the fact that our language does not adequately account for what they believe themselves to be? Or, a person speaking with intellectual honesty would acknowledge, not just what they believe themselves to be, but what they might actually in fact be.

    Your article expresses not an ounce of concern for the fate of these individuals — only scorn for those who, at face value, have a genuine desire to help them.

    FPR is concerned with the importance of place, the human need to be connected to one’s community, to the past and posterity, to the land, etc. Bear in mind the fact that people who are — as you would call them — gender-confused, likely feel an extreme disconnect between themselves and the very language they speak. Most people don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the inner experience that these people have — maybe it is confusion, and in that sense ‘unnatural’ — but the fact of their experience is undeniable, and to have so many people refuse to acknowledge the fact of such an experience would certainly do much to alienate and isolate someone from the world around them. How can one settle into a place that seems to deny what one knows to be true? I understand you, and many, would deny the truth of their experience — and maybe the proper answer is not simple acceptance of non-binary conceptions of gender. I don’t know what the right answer is. But I do recognize it as a genuine societal problem for which we do not have the answers. And I do know that thinking such as that which you put forth above does nothing to address this problem. In fact, it merely exacerbates it.

    I suppose I would like to see a more serious attempt to devise a response to the problem of gender plurality. A response in line with FPR’s humane, honest, truth- and good-seeking vision of the world.

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