To PC or Not PC

Let’s talk about grammar.

Wait! Come back! This will be interesting, I promise. It will involve politics and controversy and barely any pop quizzes. Politics and grammar meet – let’s say clash, because I did promise controversy – in the question of pronouns. There’s an old convention in English that, when the sex of a person is unspecified, he is referred to by the male pronoun. This is probably related to the old use of “Man” as a term for all humanity: The male stands in for all.

Not surprisingly, the classic rule of he has fallen out of repute and use. Several new conventions are now fighting for the privilege of replacing it. It’s too early to project a winner, because like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, they’re all flawed in different ways. As speakers and writers of the English language, let’s consider our options.

(Pop quiz: What is a conjunction?)

Some people replace the lone he with the phrase he or she. The benefit of this formulation is that it is inclusive and all-encompassing. The downside is that it’s clunky. He or she has cluttered up many sentences with verbiage that serves no purpose beyond not being politically incorrect. The phrase has produced its own variants: he/she and, better yet, s/he. These updated versions are sleeker and more refined, but severely limited in that they are suited only for the written word. No one could speak them and still appear normal.

(Pop quiz: What is a subjective clause?)

Another common solution is to use the pronoun they in place of he. The clear advantage of this is that it avoids the clunkiness of he or she, and the android weirdness of s slash he. Unfortunately, it is also grammatically incorrect. If they were correct, it would already be used. To replace the singular he with the plural they brings the pronoun into conflict with its noun (or indefinite pronoun, which is functionally the same thing). You could say that everyone has their own opinions, but this is true only of Gollum. Everyone else has his own opinions.

Perhaps the most unique answer to this grammatical quandary comes from Charles Murray, who advocates that female writers use a generic she and male writers use a generic he. This is ingenuous and possesses certain aesthetic qualities of balance and symmetry. If it had been invented by Chaucer, it might have caught on. Such innovations are much more difficult at the language’s current stage of evolution, however, and to decide the use of the pronoun by the sex of the author can rub oddly.

(Pop quiz: What is a dental fricative?)

Now we come, at last, to the final and best solution. Some writers replace he with she – a solution that maintains elegance, simplicity, and grammatical precision. It avoids the pitfalls of other solutions but skirts on the brink of its own: Is the use of this pronoun merely political, bowing to the pressure of those who have taken it into their heads to be offended by he (and just about everything else)? Taking the question as a literary one, the classic he and the modern she are the best answers. But the question is always in danger of becoming political: He or she, to PC or not PC?

How do you grapple with the dilemma in your own literary wanderings? Remember, there is no right answer. But there are several wrong ones.



  1. The concomitance of two or more events.
  2. The North Pole’s darkest secret.
  3. A clear violation of the Geneva Convention.)

Save the Exclamation Point (!)

Today I am going to talk about punctuation.

No, wait! Come back! This is interesting even if you don’t read grammar books purely for amusement.* The punctuation marks I want to discuss are the exclamation point (!) and the ElRey (my keyboard is not equipped to reproduce this mark).

Fortunately, there are graphics.**

I learned of the ElRey a week or so ago, when I came across a link to Let’s Make a Mark, a proposal for new punctuation. The author, Rob Walker, explained the damage done to the exclamation point by our new e-communication:

Even as I was writing this paragraph, I got a  note from a highly erudite editor of a widely respected literary/cultural journal: “You are too kind!”

I actually hadn’t been kind to any excitable-making extent in the missive he was responding to. But we both knew that. Consider a non-exclamation-point version of my correspondent’s message: “You are too kind.” That reads dry, chilly, possibly even sarcastic. Which suggests how the function of the exclamation mark has changed: It no longer connotes remarkable enthusiasm; it just signals a sort of general friendliness and baseline cheer, the equivalent of saying “Howyadoin?” in a chipper voice.

To put it briefly, the exclamation point is being exclaimed out of its meaning. Perhaps the most telling part of the above (very true) paragraph is the last phrase: in a chipper voice.

That is what it is really about. We all try, in our Internet dialogue, to have the brevity of a real conversation, but for that we need tone, like a real conversation. What people communicate through voice, expressions, and body language has to be conveyed other ways. Smiley faces, emoticons, acronyms, /sarc tags.

Exclamation points.

So Walker proposed the ElRey, to stand in and preserve the exclamation point. Another option is to write enough words, with enough precision, that they don’t need to be clarified with either the exclamation point or the ElRey. But then we would lose a lot in the way of brevity. Quickness, and efficiency, always were the chief virtues of e-communication.

Maybe you have to have a little of the grammar stickler in you to be interested in saving the exclamation point. But anyone can be interested in a new punctuation mark, especially one designed for Internet use. Every cause needs that sort of broad appeal. Movements of sticklers are so hard to get past the signs stage. (“Sticklers of the world, unite!” or “Sticklers of the world: Unite!”?)

Honestly, the ElRey will probably never get anywhere, but this could be fun anyway. That could even be our slogan.

* I only did this once.

** Provided by Rob Walker, by way of Ellen Susan.