Emasculated English

Did you know that if you have ever substituted “he or she” for generic “he,” then you have been made the accomplice of feminist propaganda? That is precisely what David Gelernter argues in his must-read article “Feminism and the English Language: Can the damage to our mother tongue be undone?” Among other things, he says that feminist idealogues have pushed generic masculines out of English style manuals and have made it a cultural sin to use them at all.

For the record, I use generic masculines and will continue to do so. They are no more instruments of oppressive patriarchy than are the squirrels in my backyard. They may look kind of creepy to some, but they really are harmless.

Anyway, read Gelernter’s article in toto. It’s excellent.

“Feminism and the English Language: Can the damage to our mother tongue be undone?” – by David Gelernter (Weekly Standard)

[David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University.]


  • MatthewS

    Without reading the article, I wonder if one could say that any woman who votes is also an accomplice of the feminist agenda?

    My underlying assumption is that some changes for women in our culture represent positive progress. The phrase “an accomplice of the feminist agenda” could be taken to be an emotionally loaded term that paints all such progress as negative.

    In order to be fair, I will take a chance later on to read the article “in toto.”

  • Benjamin A


    Your phrase “Without reading” could be taken to assume that anyone who reads is somehow inferior to others who don’t read.

    I’m assuming that reading isn’t all that bad and does represent some positive progress in our culture.

    In order to be fair, I will stop using bits and pieces of what you wrote to assume something negative from your intent/motives. I will instead keep all that you have written in its context and be fair and even handed in dealing with what you actually have said; instead of inferring things you didn’t say. IOW, I will deal with all that you have said “in toto”.

    Now, for you ultra sensitive types reading Denny’s blog, (sorry if my saying ultra sensitive types offends any of you) my response to MatthewS is not a personal attack. I am simply trying to engage, through the medium of sarcasm/humor (depending on how you take it) (and if either/or of those approaches offends you, again, I’m sorry), the issue of taking ‘bits and pieces’ of what someone says and then creating a negative slant against the original intent or motive of the one writing.

    Example: MatthewS wrote, “The phrase “an accomplice of the feminist agenda” could be taken to be an emotionally loaded term that paints all such progress as negative.”

    And if you notice the fine print, Denny didn’t use the word “agenda”; but instead used the word “propaganda”. MatthewS also replaced the word “the” with the word “an” as well as inserted the word “the” before the word “feminist”. Just for the record.

    Denny actually wrote, “Did you know that if you have ever substituted “he or she” for generic “he,” then you have been made the accomplice of feminist propaganda? That is precisely what David Gelernter argues…”

    The article is clearly on the issue of English Language; the use of “he or she” and not on voting rights.

    Maybe MatthewS has an “agenda”???

    By the way, the web page for the article was down for service. So I too “will take a chance later on to read the article “in toto.””

  • Jon

    Wonder what Martha Lou would say about this article.

    I actually completely disagree with the gentleman.

    Coming from a military background, I see a need to have language be more specific than vague, try reading and interpreting our regulations sometime. Instead of having everyone assume a neutral he, specifiy what gender you are working with. Detail matters.


  • Paul


    I’d say he looks like any number of anonymous rock critics for any number of magazines or newspapers.

    re: the article…

    1) Mr. Gelernter makes some fine points in his article. I thought that his remorse over the loss of brotherhood and great men were great points. The closest we get to “brotherhood” these days is the neo-hippie charge to “be good family.”

    2) I agree that putting “he or she” or “he/she” is ridiculous. Using the plural, however, of their, is not nearly so much. If the real reasoning behind the hatred of “he or she” has to do with the loss of simple and direct English, as he alludes to once or twice, then “their,” where appropriate, does the job quite nicely.

    I think one can still be an effective writer, even in this hyper-PC era. It is, our duty, though, to teach our children well. It is our job to make sure that they read the right writers, hear the right speakers and subsequently make the right choices.

    By the way, it’d be interesting to see you quote from the Nation or Mother Jones even 1/10th as much as you do from the lunatic right fringe rags like the Weekly Standard and/or National Review.

  • Rev. Ryan M.

    Excellent post. The following is from a book I am writing:

    Since at least the mid-twentieth century, people with an unbiblical agenda have actively sought to change the English language—or its usage patterns at the very least. Feminists (including many males) have tried to remove any hint of male headship from commonly used English words.

    Biblically, however, the word ‘humankind’—a word that feminists began actively trying to popularize beginning in the late twentieth century—is not an improvement on the word ‘mankind,’ and saying ‘he or she’ or the plural ‘they’ is not an improvement on just saying ‘he’ when referring to an individual person who may be male or female.

    For instance, note how this sentence: “When you see someone, say hi to him, look him in the eye, and smile at him” is not better written like this: “When you see someone, say hi to him or her, look him or her in the eye, and smile at him or her,” or like this: “When you see someone, say hi to them, look them in the eye, and smile at them.”

    Besides the clumsiness of extra words or the aesthetic ugliness of altered grammar, we should object to changing English because biblical truth is being lost in the process—or rather, quite self-consciously stolen. As graciously as we can, we are wise to steadfastly reject these calculating advances by—call them what you will: female chauvinists, radical feminists, or misandrists (man haters).

  • Paul

    All of this said, I have to say the following, and be offended, one and all, if you so desire…

    But how on earth can people be offended by the watering down of language when you don’t care a lick about the watering down of the rest of our culture?

    Come back to me and make a stance on this after you’ve taken a stand to increase arts funding, to put arts education back into the schools, and after you’ve edified yourselves by picking up some of the works of the great American artists.

    If you think these aren’t at all linked, you’re wrong, by a mile. When minds are stimulated by the works of Copeland, Coltrane or Ellington, they’ll continue to be stimulated by great language. Let those same minds be lulled to sleep by the idiocy of mindless pop music, and they’ll be content to read pablum and spout it as well.

    Don’t complain about the problem until you’ve done something about it. And I’ll bet dollars to donuts that very few here have.

    (tell ’em what you really feel, here, Paul!)

  • Brett

    Ryan M.,

    You’ve got to be kidding me bro. Is that post serious? Sounds like you’re the one who has an agenda and needs to get over “his or her” pride. That’s just sick that you would say something like that.

    Biblical truth is being lost in the process? Come on man, English wasn’t even a language when the Bible was written. English is not what God desires every human to speak. English is not the universal language. That was nothing but a male supremacist post.

  • Euphranor

    By Gelernter’s own lights, he/she means the same as he and is more thrift and thus to be preferred. If I understand his argument, he is wrong to say the shorter form is more “effective”. It communicates the same thing (mankind just is the same as humankind) so aside from the thriftlessness of him/her, meaning isn’t at stake. It’s meaning that ties the room together.

  • micah

    When I’ve studied other languages I’ve been disappointed by only one thing: that English does not have a neutral singular. Now many times corrected by my wife (and even believing) that plural substution for singular (they/them/their) is not appropriate, I am even more disappointed.

    But I am not sure that an indiscriminate usage of pronouns makes me or he or she any less likely to know and understand Jesus, the Christ. And though such a grammatical vehicle may be in the employ of an agendizing movement, it will likely be dropped by he or she before too long (as are all vehicles, which themselves are simply a means and not the end).

    So let us celebrate the glory of God in the diversity of language and good grammar, so long as he or she is earnest.

    [It should be noted that I have also not read the Gelernter article and that I believe LSU, with two losses, is a credible NCAA football national champion. Either case may give the reader reason to discredit my thoughts as he or she sees fit.]

  • Quixote

    In my profession, if I were to allow the sentence “When you see someone, say hi to them, look them in the eye, and smile at them.” to go to print, I would be fired for bad grammar.

    As for Paul’s comments, here is my opinion: it’s hard to take you seriously sometimes because your bias is so extreme. On one hand, your POV is extreme (equating the treament of our language with arts funding), and on the other hand, the extent to which you allow your POV to steer every comment you make is also bordering on the extreme.

  • Quixote

    To those who are beating Ryan up…is there no truth to what he says?

    There are many times in the Bible where some translations have changed “son” to “children” or “sons and “daughters” that would be considered a disservice by many Jews (the nationality of the authors. enabled by the Holy Spirit of course). Why? Because the passagas are talking about covenantal rights and privileges…which in that culture and context were only afforded to sons. Not daughters. In true context, I in fact DO want God to be considered a FATHER (which,believe it or not, is also up for debate among the same people who bristle about “MANkind”) and I DO want to be considered a SON, not a daughter or “indescriminate” child.

    People often say, “In Christ, there is no male or female,” but that doesn’t mean God sees me as some gender-neutral or gender-plural being. He knows what He created me to be and He relates to me as such. Regardless, you can say, “in Christ, there is no male or female,” but in this life, there is. Big deal.

  • Paul


    I don’t see it that way (probably because of extreme bias and POV, mind you :)).

    What I see is a constant attack on the great pillars of American culture by book banners, book burners and those who cut arts and music programs in schools. And worse yet, the parents that aren’t smart enough to take their kids to go see classical and jazz concerts.

    To say that those attacks don’t filter into our language and the use thereof is to have blinders on.

    You can refuse to take me seriously, but it’d be REALLY hard to prove me wrong without using an argument by someone like Ann Coulter, which is like having no argument at all.

  • Rev. Ryan M.


    I readily acknowledge that English is not the language that God gave to Adam and Eve, it is not one of the new languages that he gave to people at Babel, and it is not one of the languages that God selected for the Bible’s original autographs (it did not yet exist, after all). In short, we have no reason whatsoever to presume that God has any special regard for English per se.

    Still, consider the following.

    In 1 Corinthians 14:10 Paul wrote, “Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.” To convey meaning is the fundamental purpose of language. By definition, language carries meaning or communicative content. That content can promote or oppose biblical themes. God himself has used Scripture to communicate certain specifics regarding the authority of men over women in various contexts. Our culture may disdain this, but the biblical message is clear.

    It is therefore interesting that, either by chance or by Christian influence, the progenitors of English incorporated certain elements which intrinsically convey some biblical truth regarding men and women. To now remove these elements from the language is not God-honoring.

  • Brett

    It’s funny then, how it took both male and female to be made in the image of God…not just male. It’s funny how Jesus uses female imagery of a hen when referring to Jerusalem. It’s funny how God is portrayed in female terms in the OT. We just look over those passages though and call them “anthropomorphisms”.

    Saying it’s not “God-honoring” leads me to believe that you are not familiar with the original languages. There are lots of elements translators have to change to make it understandable and more dynamic equivalent. Is it not honoring Jesus’ name when we don’t put “the” in front of it even though it has an article? Also, English has changed significantly over time. Do you still use a KJV Bible? That language was “God-honoring” at the time it was written. When Paul says “brothers” he is not only referring to men, he is referring to women also, It was a patriarchal society and it’s just the way it was. However, it is the translator’s job to interpret the meaning, not just the literalness. To say this is not God-honoring is just simply ludicrous and Pharisaical. I honestly can’t believe there are people who still believe like this.

  • Paul

    Well, Sarah, I can’t answer for Brett, but as one of the other obnoxious liberals that reads and posts here often, I can say that I enjoy reading opposing viewpoints, mostly because you’ll never learn anything of substance if you just keep to your own kind. The mind needs to be piqued, prodded and sometimes pushed to learn things.

    And as a Christian, I am glad that there are folks like Denny in the world that know what they’re talking about. It’s edifying reading this blog. And, in situations that I do know something about (music, music, music and music), hopefully, I post an opinion here or there that is helpful or thoughtful to someone else.

    so there. :p

  • Brett

    Amen Paul. I feel the same way. I just hope I can help people see the flip-side of some of these issues, not with the intent of persuading them to change, but with the intent at least of them being less dogmatic and venomous.

    The logic on this issue just isn’t registering with me…mainly the Rev’s comments about English. I don’t even know if Denny would agree with his conclusions (though I suspect he probably would). Part of being a missional Christian is acquiescing and contextualizing to the people you minister to and are around. If that means that I use “brothers and sisters” or “sons and daughters” instead of “brothers” and “sons”, then so be it. Newsflash, God probably doesn’t care, and neither should we. Even one of the best NT scholars in the country, Dan Wallace, would agree with that. He was the senior editor for the NET Bible and it using inclusive language quite often, and I’d like to hear Denny’s opinion about that.

  • Jeff


    I am not in favor of gender-inclusive language…

    And, I happen to listen to quite a bit of Coltrane…I was just listening to Coltrane and Miles Davis last night.

    Does that mean my points can be taken seriously? 🙂

  • Sue

    I did read the article and I am baffled at whether we are supposed to use “he” because it is not so clumsy as “he or she” – or whether it is because “she” emasculates the language as Denny seems to believe. Certainly, there is no regard, either in the post or in the article, for accuracy.

    For example, many theologians revere the use of lexical equivalents and claim to use dictionary entries for Bible translation. Yet it is not general knowledge that the first and primary equivalent for adelphoi is “brothers and sisters.” If we cared about truth we would not use a Bible which distorted the plain meaning of the Greek ad used only “brothers”. Or on the other hand, does “brothers” always include women also, as sons always means daughters and men always means women too? Possibly the English language can only say that eveyone, both men and women did something, or only women did it, but there is no language to describe only men.

    The article seems to imply that a woman can be a “great man.” All masculines include women so we are safe, there can be no restrictions on women if “he” always includes women.

    I like it, Denny. However, I am curious as to how the word “emasculated” crept into the post title. It did not feature in the article. Is emasculation a fear that is more pronounced among Christian men than in the general public?

  • Sue


    I have just been reading your post on gender blog (before I got sidetracked – fun article BTW). Since I can’t comment there I want to ask here how declaring oneself to be right is adequate.

    You cite 1 Tim. 2:12 against women teaching but you refuse to engage in the meaning of the word authenteo. Surely if you state that you are right you must expect to have to defend this position.

    Anyone who believes that authenteo means “wrongfully taking over someone else’s authority” or “acting the despot” has as high a view of scripture as those who maintain that women cannot teach men.

    We could actually review the contents of the Baldwin study online and get to the bottom of this.

  • MatthewS

    Benjamin #3,

    You are correct, I misquoted. I should have used the phrase “accomplice of feminist propaganda” instead of “accomplice of the feminist agenda.” I retyped the quote from memory and made a mistake. The substance of my concern remains the same. Thank you for that correction.

    If I may say, I don’t think you interacted fairly with my stated concern.

    Just one example: it is fair to suggest that “feminist propaganda” is an emotionally loaded term. You may disagree and initiate meaningful dialogue, but it is still a fair subject. Contra my suggestion of that, you pitted my confession that I haven’t read the article yet and suggested that I might be insulting those who don’t read. That just doesn’t seem like meaningful dialogue to me.

    It’s OK – I didn’t put it out there to start a fight. I am too busy for that! My goal in posting was to register my initial reaction.

  • Benjamin A


    You said, “You cite 1 Tim. 2:12 against women teaching but you refuse to engage in the meaning of the word authenteo. Surely if you state that you are right you must expect to have to defend this position.”

    In 1 Tim. 2:12 there are two issues here.
    1. Teaching… over a man.
    2. Exercise Authority (authenteo)… over a man.

    Paul says “… teaching OR authenteo…”.
    Two separate things all together. You seem to want to make the two into one; to make them equivalents so as to blur the meaning of the entire text over one word (authenteo).
    The word for teaching is not in dispute. So clearly, Paul doesn’t want a woman to teach… over a man (undisputable meaning). “I do not allow a woman to teach or [authenteo] over a man, but to remain quiet.”
    The word authenteo is the only disputable word here. And whatever it actually does mean in this context, Paul clearly didn’t want a woman doing that over a man either.
    So it’s not difficult to defend Paul’s prohibition of women teaching men from 1 Tim. 2:12.
    Now, keeping this in line with the original post, if Paul really meant humankind when he used the word for man or woman here, then no one is allowed to teach anyone ever!!!

  • Benjamin A


    I would agree your point is valid, just off topic (from English language to voting rights/etc…). I was simply trying to demonstrate how I would take a couple of your words and go in a completely different direction than your intended meaning.

    It was all in good humor. Hope it was taken that way. Just wanted to stay on topic. Usually the rabbit trails begin around post 7 instead of post 1. That’s all. Thanks for the dialogue.

  • Sue

    Benjamin A.,

    What are our options?

    We could go with “a woman is not to teach a man” and let go of the authenteo as unknown. But then a woman could be in a position of authority. There is not one scripture that says a woman is not to have authority.

    Hilda of Whitby was the director of the convent which graduated 5 bishops in the 7th century. Did she actually teach them? We don’t know.

    We could agree that woman cannot teach a man. But the we have to ask – not Greek, not Hebrew, not music, not English, not history, not cooking. The line must be drawn based on authority, based on which areas are authoritative.

    Otherwise, you have to remove women from the academy entirely. You would have to say that even if it is English grammar, it abrogates manhood to have a woman teaching a man?

    Is this the stance of Denny Burk? I have to ask since he has posted so authoritatively on this, and has specifically influenced women who are making decisions about their Christian calling. This is playing with a woman’s life. Does she need to go to a third world country like Lottie Moon?

    This affects the education, research abilities, wage earning power, independence, respect, Christian service, etc. of half of the world’s population. It is not trivial. Especially for single women. Half of humanity is affected by the interpretation of this verse. And people just refuse to admit that there is no evidence for the translation “have authority.”

    What career paths are open to women? Should we go back to having segregated institutions and completely prevent all coed education? As a woman, I would say absolutely. We should consider this an option.

    Women could then become professors of Greek and Hebrew, of exegesis, homiletics and hermeneutics. Women would have access to research funding on the same basis as men, and they would have their own conferences and forums, there own Bible translation, translated by women. There would be an impermeable wall between the world of men and women. That is the only other option. Otherwise you relegate women to inferior status, not complementary status.

  • Brett

    It just strikes me as odd that some of you guys affirm the verse in 1 Timothy but in other places you say it’s culture (slavery, head coverings). This view is nothing short of oppression for females b/c of a rigid and dogmatic hermeneutic that fails to take into account contradictory passages of Scripture. No wonder so many women were depressed in the Southern Baptist church I used to attend. They couldn’t pray, take up offering, teach, etc. But they could speak…I guess we change our rigid hermeneutic for that. The inconsistency on your part is simply incredible. No honest exegete would rule the evidence in your favor.

  • Benjamin A


    Paul’s teaching to Timothy is dealing with form and function “in the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” 1 Tim.3.15
    You are seeking to apply it in every cultural context. I don’t see that as the intended purpose of the text.

    How would you accurately handle the word of truth in 1 Tim. 2.12?
    Rather than spew tough rhetoric, just engage the text. Seeing that you, in your own mind are an ‘honest exegete’, what is Paul teaching Timothy about church governance from 1 Tim. 2?
    And please, you are the master of red herrings/rabbit trails, stay on spot if you can!
    I Timothy 2 please.

  • Brett


    I’m saying you can’t universalize the passage in 1 Timothy and make it true for all times the same way you can’t always require females to wear head coverings. It’s just notorious of so many people to pick and choose the passages they do and don’t want to follow. I’m not saying that this passage is not timeless…it very well could be. I’m saying it’s not as black and white and objective as many think it is.

    How do you accurately handle Philemon, 1 Cor 11, 1 Tim 2:12-15 (are women saved through child bearing? Are they supposed to keep their mouths shut?). Lots of questions to answer my friend, and to just explain the other aspects of 1 Tim 2 away and cry “culture” totally contradicts your interpretation.

    Quite unsure about your reference to rabbit trails, but if it was an attempt to make you look objective and rational then I’m sure you’ve succeeded.

    I’d like to hear your rationale since your side always claims to be “biblical”.

  • Sue

    So women can have authority in the church but not teach?

    Or women can have teach in the secular realm but not in the ecclesiastical domain?

    Was education divided into secular and ecclesiastical in Paul’s day. Was there a secular academy and an ecclesiatical academy at the time or is this just a contemporary model that is retrofitted to the verse in question?

    Do we want to know what the verse meant when it was written and follow that, or just establish some modern day equivent that some can live with and state that this is God’s truth. This seems to be Denny’s point on the Gender blog. He claims that there is a right way and a wrong way, but there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to prove what is right and what is wrong.

    What would you say, Benjamin, does it depend on culture. Possibly at that time, women could not teach at all, but now they can teach everywhere but in church. In this case, naturally women will give their best elsewhere if their husbands allow them a career at all.

  • Euphranor


    It seems to me that teaching and authority are activities of the elder (1 Tim 3), and so Paul is prohibiting a women from being an elder. Anything outside that role (elder in a church) isnt prohibited. Go run for president. Teach outside the church. Become CEO of a corporation.

    The world is your oyster.

  • Sue

    So women should just back out of theology altogether and let men reconfigure Bible translations as they please.

    Just change submit to obey, and quiet to silent and authority to submission and people to men.

    If men had actually proven themselves to be reliable in the first place this would not be an issue. But they are not. So now we have “men” instead of “people” in 2 Tim. 2:2 because some men felt that the teaching that woman cannot teach was not well established in 1 Tim. 2:12 and needed a little shoring up.

    This is not a problem I created. This is a problem that the present translators of the Bible have created. They have proven that they cannot rightly handle the word of truth.

    Why did the do this? Clearly so they couls say that the word of God does not contradict itself. So, the correct translation, that “people” are to teach must include women, and this is clearly in the context of the church. Packer was clear on that.

    This is the point. When it says people it means people. And when those who prefer masculine generics, those like Denny, then, when it says “men” it also must mean people.

    I am just asking for a modicum of honesty hear.

    BTW Do you think Paul really is happy with a women running a country? I think he is.

    But the question is this? Was a secular state, and not a theocracy, God’s intention in creation? Did God create woman to run a country but not have authority in her own home?

  • Quixote


    I have no idea how Ann Coulter got dragged into this, but alas.

    I wasn’t trying to be mean to you; I think I was just exasperated. It’s a bit like Sue and “authenteo”…she can’t leave a comment without bringing it up. And with you, it’s music. Anyone who’s read this blog for a day or longer knows you’re a professional musician, or HE OR SHE is an idiot. :o)

    It’s as if you think music is akin to the Gospel and you’re push for making us all classical jazz lovers has become the Great Commission. If people would only listen to Coltrane, we’d solve war and world hunger…

    Do you get what I’m saying?

    My only point was that no matter what Denny posts about, you somehow bring up music. As if it’s the be all and end all to everything.

    I just think that in your passion you may have a thing or two backwards. Sure, large numbers of people today don’t generally appreciate classical music, be it jazz or true classical music like Bach and Mozart. But their lack of appreciation, or their love of pop drivel, isn’t what causes them to butcher the English language. Perhaps it’s the fact that we don’t appreciate or understand the finer points of the English language that we’re content to listen to drivel on our ipod.

    I’ve already written too much, but one more thing: I’m not against the arts. But I am against federal funding for the arts…and federal funding in general. Of course, that’s a whole nother can of worms and way off Denny’s topic, so I’ll leave it at that. :o)

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