Set “Them” Free

You can learn a lot about a society by the things it censors. In 1807, Thomas and and Henrietta Bowdler published a “family” version of Shakespeare from which the Bard’s blasphemy, sex, and violence had been carefully, but not always successfully, excised. Ophelia’s suicide became an accidental drowning, while the various curses and foul language were softened. (One example: “Zounds”, which is frequently lampooned as a equivalent to “heck”, or “darn”, was actually a contraction of the blasphemous “God’s wounds”, referring to the Crucifixion, and therefore about the most offensive thing possible to say.) The idea was to make the work accessible to children (and, let’s face it, women) for whom that sort of content was considered inappropriate.

The Bowdlers would come in for a lot of criticism, if not outright vilification, in the years that followed, but they never meant to actually censor Shakespeare. Their intent was to make it available for a broader audience, the same way that Garth Stein wrote a “young adult” version of his successful racing novel, entitled Racing In The Rain: My Life As A Dog. (The primary “bowdlerization” there is the toning-down of the adult story’s central plot point, a false rape accusation from a teenaged girl that proved to be very controversial with, and triggering for, certain male readers who could never imagine a young woman coming on to, or causing trouble for, a handsome older man, largely because they assume their own repulsiveness to the fairer sex is universal rather than a specific product of their own querulous, creepy personalities and Cheeto-dust-stained, fuggernautical miens.) At no point did Thomas and Henrietta suggest that the availability of Shakespeare be restricted. Rather, they hoped that their efforts would increase interest in, and engagement with, the original work — at the appropriate time, of course.

I’ve never particularly disapproved of censorship on moral grounds, within reason. Rabbit, Run was not materially improved when Knopf changed the phrase “Best bedfriend, done woman” found in the first hardcover edition back to Updike’s original draft of “Best bedfriend, fucked woman” in later paperback reprints. This mild evasion, and many like it, smoothed my childhood’s precocious passage through many an adult-oriented book. It wasn’t always evenhanded. When I was nine years old I found my father’s copy of John Toland’s outstanding The Rising Sun; I finished it understanding the mechanisms of Japanese torture, which were related in gripping detail, much better than I understood the idea of rape, which was mentioned when necessary but always held at a discreet distance. Perhaps it no longer matters in an era where even adults restrict themselves to a diet of young-adult garbage, but there was some benefit in not bombarding children with unrelenting grotesquerie, particularly when the grownups were smart enough to know what was being said between the lines anyway.

Those days are long gone, of course. There is now no sexual practice or perversion so disgusting that we will not cheerfully rub the noses of our children in it, particularly if doing so raises our status in a society that is now far too illiterate to usefully read Shakespeare in the original but which exalts sex-positivity to a degree that would make a fourth-century centurion leaving a vomitorium turn back for another round. Yet there is one bit of sexuality too pungent, too controversial to express in the printed (or HTTPed) page today; namely, the notion that there are two biological sexes and that they may be referred to as such in writing.

A few weeks ago, I was reading something about a new supercar, which I’ll paraphrase like so: “The driver sits behind an elaborate steering wheel. The display shows them blah blah blah.” I had to pause; how many people are driving this thing? Is the display visible to the passenger, who has not been mentioned up to this point but could be reasonably presumed to be in the driver’s immediate vicnity?

Then I remembered that I was reading a “progressive” site that uncritically accepts the modern gospel of genderlessness. This is not to be confused with the other modern gospel of fluid gender, mind you. I once hired a male-to-female transgender writer who expected to be referred to as “she”, an expectation which I had no trouble meeting. Were I discussing this person’s experience with the car in question, I would say that “The driver will find all the controls within her reach.” When discussing the set of all drivers, however, I would say that “The driver will find all the controls within his reach.”

I would do this because I grew up as an educated and literate human being who understands the idea of grammatical gender. The default pronoun for an individual human being is “his”. Not because “he” is automatically a man, but because that is the way our language evolved. True story: The word for “woman” was a “neutral” word until Chaucer’s time or thereabouts; prior to that you could legitimately write a sentence that would translate as “I met a woman, took it home, and fucked it,” much like Jay’s exhortation to Silent Bob regarding alien life in Clerks.

Out of deference to illiterate readers, who swarm across this land like the locusts of Biblical times, I will occasionally use the despicable “his or her” for publication. It is ridiculous, particularly when dealing with something like a race car which despite the enthusiasm of many qualified ladies including my wife remains ninety-eight-percent likely to contain a man and now a woman, but I do it to keep the inbound email to a dull roar.

Unfortunately for all of us, the same education system that can’t teach people how to make change at McDonald’s without injury appears perfectly capable of instilling a form of quick-bake ignorant outrage whenever they encounter “triggers” such as the usage of proper English. As a consequence, the almost impossibly stupid practice of using the plural “them” to indicate a singular “him” is now in wide practice. I do not know who started it, I do not know by whose unholy order it continues, but it is wrong and it should be stopped by any available means up to and including the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft.

This might seem a rather insignificant thing about which to get upset, but it is important. Precision in language is almost always important, far more so when the language in question is written. Human beings developed precision in written language because it prevents misunderstandings and mistakes. Precision in written expression is what keeps the power on and the water running and the airliners in the sky. It prevents wars and bankruptcies and lawsuits. It cannot be adequately replaced with emojis or GIFs. The more willful violence we do to the available precision of the English language, the more damage we do to the slightly tattered remains of our society.

There’s some irony to be had here. I suspect that the average proponent of “them” would defend his position by lecturing us about how critical it is to not assume gender when discussing drivers, astronauts, or Chief Executive Officers. (Garbagemen, homeless men, murderers, rapists, and dead soldiers are free to remain male by default, of course.) He would then say that losing precision of number — how many people does this driver’s seat really contain? — is less important than establishing freedom from gender. But the original use of “him” and “his” was genderless by default. When I write “The driver will find everything within his reach,” I am using the form specifically to express the meaninglessness of gender in that context. So the people who complain about “gender in text” are trying to disinter a long-buried corpse so they can have the pleasure of violating it. It is ridiculous, which is a word meaning “deserving of ridicule.”

When we sacrifice precision of number to gain imprecision of gender, even when we already had it, we are effectively reducing the resolution of our text, the same way that “pixelating” a face in a digital photo or video permanently and irretrievably reduces the information transmitted to us by that photo or video. If you spoke like that in combat or police work or firefighting, someone would die as a consequence.

In fact, if you want to know just how critical proper gender and number can be to a written work, you need go no farther than the last genre of literature consumed by the bugmen and bugwomen, which is pornography. Go through a “Fifty Shades” book and replace all the pronouns; it becomes a hermaphroditic gangbang. As the kids say nowadays, you can’t fap to that. So when our descendants unearth the evidence of what they will no doubt call the Second Dark Age, they will know by our porn that we weren’t really all that serious about being genderfluid and nondiscriminatory. Their museums of the present day will be very specific on that count, even if all their rebuilt automobiles have two or more people in the driver’s seat. Or is that drivers’ seat? It’s enough to make a fellow want to, er, accidentally drown!

42 Replies to “Set “Them” Free”

  1. AvatarJustPassinThru

    What this is, is what happens when we give air to all complaints – including those made by the chronically malcontented. The Permanently-Outraged Class – who constantly have to find SOMETHING to have hysterics over.

    (Yes, I’m aware of the gender-specific roots of THAT term….)

    Point I’m making, is that not all complaints deserve weight, or anything other than an fist in the mouth. As you say, as recently as the 1950s, it was understood that “his” and “man” were gender-neutral and gender-inclusive. “All MEN are created equal, with certain Unalienable Rights, endowed by their Creator.” That was not misogynist; that was not sexist; that was practical and all-inclusive.

    Until those who crave attention, and had a burning need to leave a mark, if only defacement…until they demanded separate and inclusive mention. “He or She.” “(S)he.” Now, the current trend is, “it.”

    I can’t think of anything more de-humanizing, degrading, than to be referred to as “it.”

    Fascinating…how the Leftist cultural-arbiters of entertainment, having mainstreamed pornography, having coarsened the language (try and have a conversation with someone under 30, without hearing the all-purpose M-F adjective inserted)…now they want to desex life entirely. Men and women are equal, indistinguishable, of fluid characteristics…and, if I can judge by the current crop of university students, two-thirds of whom are XX chromosomally…deliberately desexed with obesity, repulsive grooming, dress, and bodily markings.

  2. AvatarDean in AZ

    I am pretty sure that the SJWs that are running the organizations that publish the MLA and APA style guides should be the targets of the Thunderbolt attack runs. During my time doing my Master’s degree, it was expected that our essays be written using “he or she” and “his or hers” per the style guide, rather than my preferred “he” and/or “his” (as you point out, grammatically correct) usage.

    The use of “they” was universally disallowed however, so that may be changing in the next Edition.


    • AvatarKevin Jaeger

      This crap started with feminists in academia way back in the 1970s. Many of us were able to simply ignore the ranting for a very long time but it seems if you control academia long enough the disease slowly spreads to the rest of society.

      We laugh at snowflakes getting triggered by micro-aggressions but wait 20 years and you’ll see that this will be the new standard nearly everywhere. If we want our society to survive we need to reclaim some influence in the cultural institutions.

  3. Avatarviper32cm

    The vast majority of my grad school textbooks used “she” as the default pronoun. That was 10-13 years ago. To the best of my memory, my undergrad textbooks used “he” exclusively. I attributed the difference to the unfortunately progressive-by-default nature of my now profession, which, ironically, is one of the ones where specificity and use of language should be paramount.

    • AvatarJustPassinThru

      For the same reason “all men” were not given the vote in United States elections.

      Voting was never a right. Is not a right. Eligibility must be QUALIFIED; and in times past, wiser times, the vote was limited to (depending on state) property owners, tax payers, those who had achieved a level of literacy.

      The Right to Keep and Bear Arms was UNIVERSAL. Never to be abridges by Congress – or States.

      The right to vote was not mentioned, had not been conceived, because it has no basis in Natural Law. Only an unwise set of recent amendments even mention it, and only to lay out forbidden qualifiers (age limits above 18 or gender).

    • AvatarPanzer

      For the same reason why mens suffrage had to wait until the late 19th century or even sometimes into the 20’s – Because most people were slaves for most of history regardless of the colour of their skin or what they had between their legs 👍

      • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

        When men are in charge, women ask for freedom because that is according to our principles. When women are in charge they take freedom away because that is according to their principles.

  4. AvatarPenguinBoy

    It’s no coincidence that the whole point of “newspeak” was to take precision away from the language. Good piece – thank you!

    BTW, looks like a there’s a minor typo:
    “ninety-eight-percent likely to contain a man and now a woman” should likely be “ninety-eight-percent likely to contain a man and *not* a woman”

  5. AvatarEric L.

    Speaking of extreme need for precision communications: Hacker Newsists were lecturing on the extreme precision and brevity of ATC communications this week. Someone had to translate the lo-fi airplane chatter from the “UFO sighting” off Ireland for us commoners.

  6. AvatarScottm

    Some years ago I read that English is a very precise language and Americans use it more precisely than other English speakers. I didn’t think too much about that until I moved to Korea to run a project. It is very difficult to get a precise answer from my Korean engineering counterparts. Maybe this, maybe not that. It’s possible means it’s difficult and it’s difficult means we can’t do it. I’m studying Korean and am learning that many things are implied or expected to be inferred when communicating. You have to ask them the same questions multiple ways to make sure you fully understand.

    We should be proud of our language and resist those who would lessen it. I refuse to use these newly made up words such as Xe, Xer, or Xem. I will call a transsexual woman her or a transexual man him, but I refuse to see 5 fingers when I know there are only 4.

    • Avatarrambo furum

      What is a transexual man? Is that a man that wants to be a woman or a woman that wants to be a man? Given the counterintuitiveness of this unholy charade, I assume it is the latter?

    • AvatarWonka

      I think your comment about language precision with Koreans, has more to do with the culture and how they use (more like misuse) the language. Latin countries and cultures (I’m Mexican) have that issue, where “No” doesn’t always means no, and “yes” doesn’t always mean yes.

      I remember a Jack’s article about the “California No”.

      At least Spanish is a very precise language, although more complicated than English.

  7. Avatarhank chinaski

    Related, my initial puzzlement at the popularity of ‘Latinx’ to replace the -o and -a in implicitly gendered Spanish.

  8. AvatarPiper

    The current “debate” about the use of gender in the English language makes me wonder how this is being handled in other societies that speak languages that are much more precise in the use of gender (e.g. French, Spanish, etc.). Are the social justice warriors in these countries protesting the fact that the mobile telephone that they use to tweet their new gospel is inherently a male object?

    • Avatarsgeffe

      I’ve wondered that myself! The German language is a great example! All nouns have a gender article!

      One place this “gender neutering” has really gone nuts is in modern liberal Protestant religious denominations, where in the last ten years, it has become an abomination of the highest order to refer to God using masculine pronouns like “His,” or “Him,” which served humanity just fine for centuries until some vapid lunatics someplace had some “epiphany,” so in written words and in speech, the pastors or lay people alike are performing verbal gymnastics to get around this, to wit:

      “God does good things that work to benefit all of God’s people.” And “when God gave us God’s son, God was really giving of God-self.” (That last one is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me! I just cannot fathom what the idiots were smoking who came up with that tripe!)

      I don’t have any idea what we’re going to have to do to get the culture back!

    • AvatarWonka

      Yes they’re.

      Spanish is being tortured with this nonsense. Were male usually ends with “o” and female usually end with “a”… Now they’re trying to replace it with gender neutral “e” ending.

      For example:

      The hammer is broken — El martillo está roto …. Note “martillo” ends with “o”, meaning male gender so broken “roto”, also ends with “o”…. also “El” is male gender, were “La” is female gende , if the subject was female, for example “carta” (letter), the sentence would be:

      La carta está rota — The letter is broken

  9. AvatarWunsch

    While I do agree that correct English usage according to most style guides has generally preferred “he” as the third-person singular pronoun of choice when no specific gender is required, using “they” or “them” in this role has been around for a long time. Look through the works of that Shakespeare fellow that you mention, and you’ll find that he was using the word that way even back then.

  10. AvatarWidgetsltd

    Wow. I didn’t think that the answer to my question would be along the lines of “some citizens shouldn’t be allowed to vote”, but here we are. Should those un-voters be exempted from taxes, then, if those people are not sufficiently “qualified?” We wouldn’t want to have taxation without representation.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Playing devils advocate… most of them already are. Only half of the people in this country pay a dime in anything besides sales tax.

      Speaking personally, I would rather see the voting system reformed along the Starship Troopers system… spend four years patrolling the southern border or helping a Navajo community, and you can vote.

      • AvatarMike

        Great point.

        The SJW want everyone to have voting privileges without having any skin in the game.

        Voting should be earned with the possibility of being taken away. Pay taxes, military service etc should be milestones to earn voting rights.

        Receiving government assistance (Social Security excluded) should make you ineligible to vote. at that point you are only voting for the candidate or policy that will give you more free stuff. The SSI caveat is due to the fact that the people receiving have paid into the system and should have a say as how the distributions and benefits they paid for are doled out.

        • Avatarstingray65

          Mike, I would vote for your proposal, and boy how would that change election dynamics. As things stand now, Democrats would only get votes from the 1% mega-wealthy along the Pacific Coast and NE urban centers, Republicans would get most of the rest between 50% and 99%, while everyone below 50% on the income distribution would be ineligible to vote.

        • AvatarDaniel J

          Yes, but we all get free stuff, some more than others, some less. The roads get paved, children get education, and if course an armed forces. We all vote to either reduce our tax liability, increase the government services we selectively want, or both.

      • AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

        And when you factor in that many are using EBT to pay for much of their food/clothing, the taxes paid are even less. Tax collected from others is being used to pay the taxes on those items. SMDH

        My question is why the methhead that rents a trailer in the shithole park up the road, gets EBT and possibly Section 8 vouchers, has as much say in how tax money is spent as I do? My property taxes are $ 2800, my vehicle tags cost me over $1800 (mostly tax), and I don’t have EBT to cover my taxes paid on food.

        Yes, I know. Greedy, uncaring, racist, bigoted, Boomer. Being as I just started my 62nd trip around the sun, I no longer care what anybody thinks of my rants and opinions. I think welfare of ANY form should be limited to 5 years of eligibility, unless you have a documented disability. Lazy is not a disability. ya wanna eat? Get off your ass and do something to earn a living.

        *climbs off soapbox and stomps away

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Paying sales tax has never entitled anybody to representation, unlike the UK we don’t refund VAT when you leave.

      The solution is for every American to have both a voice in the matter and some skin in the game. Hard to do when so much of the country consists of functional illiterates floating around the poverty line.

      Right now this country is operating in an uncomfortable political alliance of the mega-rich and the mega-poor against the middle class. that’s a recipe for violence in the long run.

      • Avatarsgeffe

        In my post above, I originally wanted to state that it would probably take a civil war to bring the culture back, but I took it out.

        Sadly, as you state, that could be the ultimate outcome of the 1%-ers and the takers against the makers.

  11. AvatarRonnie Schreiber


    Are you familiar with the Confucian concept of “rectification of names”?

    From Wikipedia: Rectification of Names. Confucius was asked what he would do if he was a governor. He said he would “rectify the names” to make words correspond to reality. The phrase has now become known as a doctrine of feudal Confucian designations and relationships, behaving accordingly to ensure social harmony.

  12. AvatarWren

    A vomitorium is not a place that the Roman’s went to vomit. It is the exit to an amphitheater. Common mis-perception, but if you are writing about accuracy in language, you should be accurate throughout, right?

  13. AvatarDirt Roads

    I have done a lot of wordsmithing over the years, and most of what I do any more is write things. Not articles like Jack, but technical and legal stuff. My mother was a spelling freak, and used to criticize radio/TV jocks who would say things like “nucular” and how the wind “swep” over the hills, stuff like that. I was the 5th grade spelling champ, beating out 8th graders, so yeah, I’ve been making hay with the English language along time, and was raised that way by a woman born in the 1930s.

    I get it about the gender thing, and even though one may try to be “correct” in gender usage, I never liked the clumsy use of “their” etc. in trying to make an otherwise good sentence acceptable to the gender-sensitive. And I love women, no misogyny here — maybe most of the women I know (first wife excluded) don’t give a rip about these small things. They are fodder for small-minded people with invisible axes to grind. I use the 13th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White, OLD texts like that. Maybe I’m stuck in my ways, but I think there’s more to it than that.

    When people read this many will think oh, you’re just another white, male baby boomer with no clue as to how the real world works in your world of privilege. Nobody’s perfect, but language without rules is like a country without borders; without it, you don’t have it.

    • AvatarDirt Roads

      And I am also subject to typos. Can’t edit posts so I’ll live with the mistake above. 🙂
      Or I could blame autocorrect. I hate autocorrect!


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