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The feminists are killing the English language, says David Gelernter in the new edition of The Weekly Standard . The vitriol and bombast in his writing does not help his argument, but the main point behind it is sound: The intelligentsia has decreed that standard English requires gender-sentitive revisions, and these revisions are not improvements. Chairman sounds good; chairperson is a linguistic atrocity. The third person has become the default genderless voice to such an extent that “The driver should not drive without their wipers running” sounds grammatical to many. And we see people trying to alternate between he and she , or using the feminine pronoun as the genderless default, which of course places more emphasis on gender than is necessary. Gelernter writes:

Here is the problem with the dreaded she-sentence. Ideologues can lie themselves blue in the face without changing the fact that, to those who know modern English as it existed until the cultural revolution and still does exist in many quarters, the neutral he “has lost all suggestion of maleness.” But there is no such thing as a neutral “she”; even feminists don’t claim there is.

“The driver turns on his headlights” is not about a male or female person; it is about a driving person. But “the driver turns on her headlights” is a sentence about a female driver. Just as any competent reader listens to what he is reading, he pictures it too (if it can be pictured); hearing and imagining the written word are ingrained habits. A reader who had thought the topic was drivers is now faced by a specifically female driver, and naturally wonders why. What is the writer getting at? To distract your reader for political purposes, to trip him up merely to demonstrate your praiseworthy right-thinkingness, is a low trick.

[E.B.] White’s comment: “If you think she is a handy substitute for he, try it and see what happens.”

Gelernter is right that the fuss about he and she is more than just a matter of linguistics. Indeed, it has roots in the movement to pave over differences between the sexes, to wipe out masculinity and femininity in language and in life. But even though the movement toward linguistic androgyny is not going away, we can take comfort that in some corners of America, English does not need any help in identifying female chairmen, firemen, or fishermen. Near the beginning of her book, The Hungry Ocean , the fisherman Linda Greenlaw provides what one hopes will be the obvious solution to the problem. :

The two men shook hands, and as the fishy smell backed away from the table he added, “I just wanted to say hello. I’ve never met a fisherwoman before. Good luck.”

“Thanks. You too,” I said, and shook my head at his use of the word fisherwoman. I hate the term, and can never understand why people think I would be offended to be called a fisherman. I have often been confused by terms such as “male nurse,” wondering if that would be someone who cares for only male patients. Fisherwoman isn’t even a word. It’s not in the dictionary. A fisherman is defined as “one whose employment is to catch fish.” That describes me to a tee. Generally, when the conversation reaches the point at which the person with whom I am speaking asks what I do for a living, I assume he or she has already determined that I am female, leaving fisherman appropriately descriptive of my occupation. Fisherwoman would at best be redundant.

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