by Barbara Wallraff
We are wrestling with the term
freshman here at Michigan Technological University. Some prefer first-year
student; others contend that freshman is necessary, because of confusion
introduced by international students, transfers, and so on. What do you
I am bothered by the increasing use of the word chairperson, instead of
chairman. Even more unsettling is the new custom of referring to human beings
as chairs. A few years ago the American Association of Parliamentarians ruled
that chairman is correct for both sexes, pointing out that madame chairman has
been in use for years to indicate the feminine. What's the story?
I find a deep and disturbing clash between the grammar my demanding English
teachers taught me and the current, almost universal, use of they as a pronoun
for the singular word person and its synonyms. If a person was taught that this
is the wrong way to say it, what are they to do about it?
Great Cacapon, W.Va.
Sigh. I sometimes wonder whether the true purpose of all such issues isn't to
sort readers by mental age. I've noticed three groups. The mentally elderly
read something like "A freshman might decide that someday he wants to be the
chairman of a big corporation" and assume that the person in question must be
male--not so much because of the wording as because society used to be that
way. Those of us who are a bit younger mentally can read that sentence without
feeling that it excludes women. We learned in school that one of the meanings
of man is "humankind": a freshman or a chairman can be a member of either sex.
We also learned that there is such a thing as the "generic he"--a he that
refers to any person, in a context where no particular person is present as an
antecedent for the pronoun. People of my mental age group therefore wonder what
all the fuss is about. Those who are still younger mentally make the fuss. When
they read the freshman sentence, they, like the mentally elderly, suppose that
it applies only to men--but they are enraged by the sexism they perceive.
Unfortunately, their solutions to the problem, such as "A first-year student
. . . s/he" or ". . . they," tend to annoy us fogeys. The former lacks
grace; the latter is more grievous, for it compromises such logic as English
A speaker or writer who is trying simply to express an idea, rather than to
pick a fight with listeners or readers, needs to tread carefully. Changing
freshman to first-year student is probably treading too far: women have been
freshmen in great numbers for decades, and so the word carries no particular
connotation of male privilege, or of masculinity at all. Freshperson is
obviously impossible--but chairperson seems harmless enough. So does "A
chairman [or chairperson] . . . he or she" or, when the need to keep using both
pronouns results in something overelaborate, "Chairmen . . . they." Another
possibility is to try to leave the contentious words out: "A freshman might
hope to lead a big corporation someday."
I object to women writers. No, not to the authors themselves but to calling
them that. Expressions such as woman golfer and woman politician are all too
common in modern idiomatic English. The corresponding usage to describe a man
in a stereotypically female role is always the adjective male: for instance,
male nurse. This will surely be a better world when we no longer need to
qualify nouns with gender. Until then we could improve the world slightly by
using adjectives where adjectives are needed (female author, female golfer) and
letting nouns refer to people, places, and things.
I'm sure most of us feel that this is already a better world, now that women
and men have more choices about their roles in it. Having some choice about
what to call ourselves is also nice. English generally does offer its users
more than one way to say something--more than one correct way, for a choice
that boils down to a matter of taste. Few find the likes of lady writer or of
authoress tasteful these days, so woman writer is pretty much the only extant
alternative to female writer--assuming that the context is not one like "Jane
Austen was a writer," in which no purpose is served by specifying sex.
While it's true that the noun man is rarely used as an adjective, or
"attributively," many other nouns are: think of bull rider, king crab, sperm
bank. In fact, woman appears in dictionaries either as an adjective in addition
to a noun or with the notation that the noun is often used attributively. At
least, that's what is in the dictionaries belonging to this woman writer.
Have you recently had a dispute about language which you would like this column
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Street, Boston, MA 02116, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@aol.com.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.