Over the last few decades, certain groups in the English-speaking world (or at least in the North American English-speaking world) have set out to neuter the English language. I actually mean that in a literal sense, since there is increasing opposition to the use of masculine nouns and pronouns to describe an unknown or generic person. Apparently, even though this is a common feature of many languages throughout human history, and no one saw it as a problem until now, this usage of grammar discriminates against women. For example, when he landed on the moon, Neil Armstrong said:
That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
I simply can’t imagine any public figure making such a statement today. It’s way too masculine. He referred to himself as a “man,” implying the primacy of men in exploration, and he referred to humanity as “mankind,” implying that it is represented by men. Wouldn’t it have been more sensitive for Neil to refashion his famous line en route to the moon?
That’s one small step for a person, one giant leap for humanity.
Much better! Except that we’ve ruined the wordplay that made such a statement compelling in the first place. This is the problem that I have with gender-inclusive language: it’s tone-deaf, in a literary sense. I’m actually not opposed to the idea of language being gender inclusive per se. It doesn’t trouble me at all. What I am opposed to is the way this particular trend has gutted the English language of so much poetic beauty. Let me give you a more realistic example, appropriate because yesterday was Canada Day (formerly known as Dominion Day, if you’re not afraid of dominions):
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
That’s the first stanza of the Canadian national anthem. It’s not gonna leave you in tears, but it’s still pretty good. Now, do you see the problem here? It only mentions “sons.” What about Canada’s daughters? Apparently, they are excluded from having patriot love commanded by their home and native land. So a few feminists have whipped up this clever rewording:
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all of us command.
Which is grammatically correct and simultaneously sounds like it was written by a fifth-grader. Knowing Canadian cultural trends, I am confident that one day this rewrite will come to pass, and that my fellow Canadians will have even less incentive to sing their national anthem. I plan to mumble that line under my breath.
I’m also troubled by the way that this gender-inclusive invasion is worming itself into Christian hymns. Here’s a good example of a well-written hymn—the final verse to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”:
Mortals, join the happy chorus
Which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us,
Brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife.
Joyful music leads us Sunward
In the triumph song of life.
Immediately, you can tell where this stanza is often changed. The third and fourth lines are replaced with this passable rewrite:
Love divine is reigning o’er us,
Leading us with mercy’s hand.
I use the word passable because these lines actually do fit the rhyme scheme and meter of the stanza. However, they’re inferior in every way to the lines which they replaced. The “Father love” / “Brother love” parallelism is gone. (Why is “Father love” replaced, anyway? Is God not our Father?) “Love divine” is a much more awkward phrase than “Father love.” The alliteration of Father–reigning-o’er, brother-binds, and man-to-man is dropped. And the logical flow into the next line disappears; instead of God’s people being bound together with brother love and then marching onward together in song, we have the jarring effect of talking about “love divine” and then jumping forward to a victory march. The new lines are insipid in comparison to the rest of the song. Are masculine nouns and pronouns really so scary and terrible that they require us to crappify perfectly good literature and music?
So here’s where I stand: I don’t mind gender-inclusive language in informal speech and writing. For instance, I often find myself using them to refer to an individual of unknown gender when I speak. But I find it irritating to read that sort of grammar in writing that is actually intended to sound good. Much the same way that “y’all” and “you did good” work well in spoken English but not in written English, gender-inclusive language usually tends to undermine the beauty of the English language in any context where aesthetic value is important. So, in my opinion, an author should avoid using it when he’s writing anything more substantial than an email.