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Do you speak English?

Phlogiston Thirty-Seven, 1994

Word processors are wonderful devices. I'm using one as I write this article and I wouldn't be without it. I can incorporate second thoughts, move things around, interpolate sentences, rewrite whole chunks, and it is all so incredibly easy. What a relief it is not to have to retype a dozen pages for the sake of one new paragraph as I used to have to do all too many times in the past when using my little Olivetti portable typewriter.

Unfortunately the temptation to do all of that neat stuff is sometimes too overwhelming to resist. The ease with which words can be processed leads inexorably to lots of words banged out at an enormous rate and accounts in large part for the proliferation of so many large books and never ending series.

Two perpetrators of this literary fecundity are Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman and it seems to me that they embody many of the sins that word processors must be held responsible for. Like their food counterparts, if word processors are wrongly used they produce tasteless, easily digestible pap.

Serpent Mage and The Hand of Chaos by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman are published by Bantam. They are two novels in the Death Gate cycle. They are also enormously large books which appear to have been written and published within days of each other, so rapidly did they appear on the shelves. The books are typical fantasies -- event driven rather than character driven since the characters are so wooden and dull that they couldn't drive anything! There are no surprises in the plots. Weiss and Hickman have found a money spinning formula and they never vary it at all. The books aim at a captive market (nobody is going to buy these books unless they have bought the previous ones since they are virtually incomprehensible if you have not read the earlier books in the series). This is a common sin of modern publishing and I have fulminated about it before.

However the ease with which words can be spun together and the fact that so much writing in this area is formula writing anyway makes it very tempting simply to bang out any old rubbish as fast as possible (and let the sense, such as it is, go hang). I strongly suspect that these books are made up of largely unrevised first draft material. What else is one to make of this sort of saccharine writing:

My lamb fell asleep almost immediately. I was puttering about the room, sorting her dear ribbons and laying out her dress for the morrow when a strange feeling came over me. My hands and arms felt heavy, my tongue dry and swollen. It was all I could do to stagger to my bed. I fell instantly into a strange state. I was asleep, yet I wasn't. I could see things, hear things, and yet I could not respond. And thus I saw them.

Why the old fashioned phrase "the morrow"? What is wrong with the simple word "tomorrow"?

The books are riddled with unnecessary footnotes referring to the history and customs of the races involved in the story. The footnotes define and describe the "unusual" words used in the text. On one occasion, a footnote defines the word "duenna" and I think it is a measure of the contempt that Weiss and Hickman have for their audience that they feel it necessary to define this perfectly ordinary word. (Nevertheless, footnotes are also very trendy things to have in novels these days and Weiss and Hickman are nothing if not dedicated followers of fashion.)

The trend towards rapidly processed words can be seen even more clearly in Ghost Legion by Margaret Weiss, again published by Bantam. Here Margaret Weiss deserts her long time partner Tracy Hickman to produce a solo novel. It concerns Dion Starfire, the ruler of a galaxy. After years of war an uneasy peace reigns. Dion is in love with a woman who is not his queen and the alliances that rest on his marriage are threatened. The illegitimate son of the dead king leads a revolt against Dion. Can Dion preserve his throne and keep peace in the galaxy?

Despite the futuristic trappings and pseudo-scientific speculations that litter the text this is not a science fiction book. This is a clichéd historical romance, a medieval costume drama with ray guns. The social set up is laughable (feudalism across the light years -- good grief!) and the characterisation non-existent. It would not be out of place if it was shelved with the other bodice-rippers which are at least honest enough to proclaim themselves for what they are instead of hiding behind a glossy facade.

The evidence of automatic writing with little or no revision applied to the text is even stronger in this book. Consider this passage:

She was breath taking. Xris would have taken off his cloak -- had he owned a cloak -- thrown it in the mud at her feet. Hell, he would have thrown himself into the mud at her feet, begged her to walk with him. But he reminded himself sternly that business was business and he'd better keep this on a business footing -- which meant standing on his own two.

This passage has four sentences and contains three grammatical errors, one ambiguity, one arguably bad grammatical habit, one misuse of punctuation and two biological impossibilities. That is not bad going for four sentences.

"Xris would have taken off his cloak -- had he owned a cloak -- thrown it at her feet." Ignoring the parenthetical clause indicated by the hyphens, the sentence reads: "Xris would have taken off his cloak thrown it at her feet." We should always be able to remove parenthetical phrases or clauses without altering the major meaning of the sentence. If we do this here, we discover that the sentence has no meaning since there is no conjunction joining "…taken off his cloak" to "thrown it at her feet." and running them together turns the whole thing into nonsense. Probably the best way of joining them would be with "and" though a semi-colon might just be acceptable. The structure of the sentence suggests that the parenthetical clause is an afterthought interpolated into the flow. A better structure which removes the interpolation would be: "If Xris had owned a cloak, he would have taken it off and thrown it at her feet." Even this is not ideal since merely owning a cloak does not necessarily mean that one is wearing it. A much better phrasing is: "If Xris had been wearing a cloak, he would have taken it off and thrown it at her feet." This removes all the errors and also the ambiguity.

"Hell, he would have thrown himself into the mud at her feet, begged her to walk with him." A similar mistake can be noted here. Again we have a missing conjunction between the elements of the sentence. A comma is used to suggest it, but that is not correct. A semi-colon would be marginally acceptable. Again though the word "and" is a much better choice. Thus we would end up with: "Hell, he would have thrown himself into the mud at her feet and begged her to walk with him." This ignores the physical impossibility of a person walking when lying in mud (or even speaking if one is face down), but it is still better than the original.

"But he reminded himself sternly that business was business and he'd better keep this on a business footing -- which meant standing on his own two." Starting a sentence with "But" is generally frowned on. It can sometimes be an effective technique for adding extra emphasis (provided it is not overdone -- it is a habit I often catch myself indulging in; but that does not make it any more correct). It does seems a little out of place here. However, that possible error pales into insignificance when we examine the end of the sentence. If we parse the sentence strictly, we see that the word "two" is used as a noun. Since Xris is standing on his "own two", I am tempted to ask just which part of the body a "two" is! Obviously the writer meant to say "standing on his own two feet." However she omitted the word "feet" because she mistakenly assumed that "two" could be qualified by the previous word "footing". Since the context in which "footing" is used is actually unconnected with the person's own feet, this is simply not the case.

Other passages from these and other books make it perfectly obvious that Weiss and Hickman are not as illiterate as these extracts might suggest. They do know the elementary rules of English grammar. It is just that sometimes, in the heat of the moment, they make mistakes. A little revision (or, since they are using a computerised system, perhaps the application of one of the many grammar checking programs that abound) would improve the prose immeasurably.

I'm not sure what to do about the puerile plots out of the stock cupboard, but that is a different problem. Of course, the fact that such elementary mistakes still exist in the published book also raises the question of exactly what Bantam's copy editors do all day long, but that too is a different problem.

If you wish to read unrelievedly ungrammatical prose, try the thrillers of Eric Lustbader. Virtually every line contains constructions that start with a capital letter and end with a full stop but which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered to be sentences since they are totally innocent of verbs.

It may seem that I am becoming as boring as Robert Browning's grammarian (see The Grammarian's Funeral wherein is described the death rites of a pedantic man who all his life long "...ground he at grammar").

Despite that, I think that grammar is a very important part of both the written and spoken language and without at least paying lip service to it you will always end up with the type of ugliness that the extract from the Weiss novel typifies.

Grammar is a subject that is taught less and less frequently these days. Teachers are more concerned with self-expression than with grammar (though how you can express yourself cogently without a modicum of understanding of the rules of grammar escapes me). Most people simply apply casually learned conventions to their speech and writing without bothering too much about formal rules. As long as you don't bend things until they break (as in the Weiss extract) you will probably get away with it most of the time. Often, therefore, grammar is a non-issue.

However I find it ironic that very fine points of grammar (and vocabulary) quickly become the subject of heated debate when the concept of gender raises its head. The problem comes, of course, when words such as "man" (with connotations of masculinity -- ie man as in not woman) are used in a gender unspecific sense to denote humanity in general. Women get very upset (quite rightly in my opinion) at seemingly being ignored in this fashion and wimpish defences about the word being used generally rather than specifically cut no ice.

There is no doubt that gender is a biological fact. It is utter foolishness to pretend otherwise. Men and women demonstrably exist and belong to different genders. Whether or not that gender is relevant in a given English sentence is of course a perfectly legitimate topic for debate. (It is all too often confused with sexuality, which has nothing whatsoever to do with it.)

I find it hard to understand how the sentences "The man is very tall. He must be over six feet." can cause any controversy. All men are of the masculine gender and the pronoun "he" correctly refers back to the subject of the previous sentence (a specific man). The gender of the person is correctly identified (not the person's sexuality -- I insist that we separate the two). The gender is very relevant to the sentences since we are referring to a specific person who ipso facto possesses gender. Thus similarly "The woman is very tall. She must be over six feet." is also nothing but a simple statement of fact.

Problems arise when you say "The person is very tall. He must be over six feet.". Here an undoubted bias is showing itself. What evidence do we have that the person under discussion is masculine? None at all -- so why should a masculine pronoun be used? It would make just as much sense to say "she" instead of "he". Strictly speaking we need a gender-neutral pronoun in the second sentence but the only one we have that comes close is "it" and that won't work because it implies sexual neutrality (which is an impossible state for a person to be in except in certain rare medical cases) rather than gender-neutrality which is what we are seeking. There simply is no gender-neutral pronoun in English.

Over the years, many people have tried to invent the things. In the short story collection Dealing in Futures, Joe Haldeman suggests "tha" instead of "he" (and "ther" and "thim" for "his" and "him"). I seem to recall Timothy Leary suggesting "s/he" and "ti". However none of these have ever really caught on and they all sound very artificial. ("s/he" cannot be pronounced and "ti" is a homonym for "tea" and "tee" and sounds silly in this context.)

I don't really think we have a problem though. All our plural pronouns are gender-neutral ("they", "their" and "them"). All that is necessary is to rephrase gender specific sentences in the plural and the gender connotation vanishes from the pronoun. If it is not possible to rephrase the sentence in the plural without losing the sense, then avoid the use of pronouns entirely by rephrasing or repeating the noun to which the pronoun refers. Thus my sentence about a tall person might become: "The person is very tall; perhaps over six feet." or "The person is very tall. The person is over six feet."

A computer manual which informs us that "When a user invokes the program he is presented with a menu of choices." could more accurately construct the sentence as "When users invoke the program, they are presented with a menu of choices." In this particular case we might do better by phrasing it in the passive voice -- "When the program is invoked a menu of choices is presented." However the passive voice can quickly become too much of a good thing and a piece of prose written entirely in the passive is often excruciatingly tedious because of the distancing impersonality of it.

I think in every case it is possible (without too much circumlocution) to rephrase gender specific sentences which do not refer to entities of a specific gender.

A closely related problem arises when we consider the vanishingly small number of nouns that have gender specific forms. I suspect this problem owes much of its impact to the fact that (outside of biologically important sentences) gender as a grammatical idea is largely non-existent in English (though not so in many of the languages from which it evolved -- notably Latin and Greek).

I'm not sure I could write this article or make these points in French, for example, since gender is so intrinsically bound in to the language that getting worked up about it would render the average French speaker utterly dumb. In French, a table is feminine (why? who knows!) and perforce one must use feminine words when discussing it. Contrariwise a footstool is masculine and only masculine words may be used. Parts of speech must agree in number and gender. Men and women, and words relating to them, are merely a small extension of this fundamental idea and it all seems perfectly natural.

However in English the idea only applies to a very small number of word pairs which all relate to people (who we must remember are entities which intrinsically possess gender). These are words such as author/authoress, actor/actress, aviator/aviatrix, dominator/dominatrix and so on. (Aren't the feminine endings interesting? Why don't we have an actrix or an aviatoress?)

There is a trend towards using only one of these words (generally the masculine) no matter what the gender of the person under discussion. By and large I dislike this trend. In a very real sense it insults Goldie Hawn to refer to her as an actor. However referring to her as an actress draws an unnecessary distinction. Remember that gender is possessed by a person. The profession that the person follows has no reason to be associated with gender other than through a specious extension of the concept of gender as a property of non-biological nouns, as in French. We have seen that this is a very non-English thing to do. Thus the specific person is legitimately "she". The reference to her as a (female noun) actress is much less legitimate and much less easily defended. (If you want to insert the words "actor", "he" and "Kevin Costner" in the appropriate places in the above sentences I don't mind. They lead to the same conclusions.)

Again though, English is such a rich language that almost invariably we can find a gender-neutral word to replace the gender-specific one that imposes a gender role where it is not germane. What about, for example: writer, thespian and pilot? (I'm stumped on dominator/dominatrix. Can anybody help? Chairman/chairwoman is another very difficult one. Chairperson is becoming more widely used, though it is a very ugly word.)

The neologisms that people coin to avoid any implication of a gender role or gender trap are sometimes hilariously inept. A woman of my acquaintance refuses to be labelled "Ms" on the grounds that she is not a manuscript. I find this a very compelling argument and I am almost unable to use the word any more because of the mad pictures it paints in my mind. (If she took a shower this morning does it make her a palimpsest?)

I also find no merit in semi-facetious self-righteous debates about manhole covers and similar trivia. Including "man" in a word is not of itself an indication of gender bias. Thus manacle, manager, manatee, manchester, manchineel, manciple, mancunian, mandamus, mandarin, mandate, mandible, mandoline, mandragora, mandrake, mandrel, mandrill, manducate, mane, mangabey, manganese, mange, mangel-wurzel, manger, mangle, mango, mangold, mangonel, mangosteen, mangrove, manhattan, mania, maniac, manic, manichee, manicure, manifest, manifesto, manifold, manikin, manioc, maniple, manipulate, manitou, manna, mannequin, manner, manoeuvre, manometer, manor, mansard, manse, mansion, mansuetude, mantel, mantic, mantilla, mantis, mantissa, mantle, mantra, manual, manufacture, manuka, manumit, manure, manuscript, manx, many, manzanilla and manzanita are not, and should not be, controversial words.

Nevertheless I do wonder why a ship is invariably referred to as "she" by both men and women alike. Perhaps this is the very last legitimate gender-bearing non-biological noun in English?

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