This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 5/14/99
Page B4, Opinion; Copyright 1999 by Beth David

Our obsession with words sets us apart
(Aunt & I Obsessed with words)

To my aunt goes the dubious honor of getting me hooked on the English language. To me it's a marvelous work of art in progress, capable of imparting great wisdom, utter stupidity, and the soul's deepest secrets. It's also remarkably less sexist than its European relatives.

Because my aunt is a genuine grammar expert, she occasionally suggests that I write about grammar gaffes.

Naturally, I react to her request with fear: bona fide, adrenaline-charged, run-for-my-life fear of making a really, really stupid mistake in an article about ... mistakes.

We bond over grammar, my aunt and I. Ever since I could distinguish a noun from a verb, she has cheerfully corrected my conversational slips and pointed out my colloquial foibles. Mixed metaphors send her reeling up the mountain of bad writing throwing offenders down to the lions' den of usage hell.

While other relatives argue abortion rights and religious wrongs, my aunt and I talk split infinitives, prepositional phrases, and the evils of spell-check.

How could she know that her sweet young niece would someday use that knowledge to attack patriarchal language, both subtle and conspicuous?

Lesson No. 1: pronouns. "He" is for a male animal. "She" is for a female animal. "It" is for a boat or other THING, including a place. Yes, that's right, a boat is an it, a thing, it is NOT a she. A country is an it, too. Canada does not explore HER shores, Canada explores ITS shores.

To the snickerers among you, I offer a brief recounting of a scene from "Murder She Wrote." The mayor and Jessica talked animatedly. Jessica listened with concern because she thought the mayor was talking about his ailing wife, until he mentioned "scraping the barnacles off her hull."

If you think it's coincidental that a society controlled by men creates people who refer to things as shes, think again. The whole concept presupposes that only men can be "doers." As in: "The explorer found her rotted, rusted remains surrounded by sharks." My fishing buddies easily curb their cuss words in certain company, but they'd rather brawl than stop calling a boat (or an engine or the wind) a "she."

Which leads us to "fisherMAN." What, I ask, is so sacrilegious about saying "fishers" instead of "fishermen," and "lobsterers" instead of "lobstermen?" We say "scallopers," "farmers," "sailors," "troopers," with no apparent loss of derring-do to those professionals. Why not "fishers?"

Which takes us to the singular/plural quagmire, where my favorite language is woefully inadequate. English has no singular, gender-neutral pronoun for humans. Since "it" is inappropriate for people, we see a lot of misplaced "theys." As in: "If anyone hates New Bedford, they should move to Nantucket." It's wrong to use "they," of course (because "anyone" is a singular pronoun).

But using "he or she" makes for awkward speech. The strict grammarian uses "he" all by itself. That's the rule (surprise, surprise).

The good news is: using only "he" finally makes people uncomfortable. So modern speakers search for more inclusive alternatives, sometimes at the expense of good grammar. Feminists have been blamed for everything from rape to the proliferation of drive-through food service. Why not blame us for destroying the language, too? Nevertheless, this is one grammatical gaffe I'm willing to live with (sorry, Aunt). For years I've suggested using "tey" (that's "they" without the "h"). But, we've seen the kind of relentless resistance a new word can face.

Taking us to our very own wonder-word: SouthCoast (although even I can't find a gender-based reason to include it here). The resistance to this word is both mind-boggling and amusing. Let me assure you: New Bedford did not get scooped out of the turf and carried away! Our little hub still hails from Southeastern Massachusetts, at the edge of the big blue Atlantic in all of its glory and fury, halfway between Providence and Hyannis, and impossible to see from Beacon Hill.

Unfortunately, no one can agree on how to use the word. Is New Bedford IN SouthCoast or ON SouthCoast, or IN THE SouthCoast or ON THE SouthCoast?

The nuns droned endlessly that "actions speak louder than words." But that underestimates the power of language. Just ask that poor Stang kid who got his ego briefly stroked, and promptly trashed, on these very pages.

So the next time a little girl says she wants to be a "fireFIGHTER," tell her she should do it — even if it does mean being called "they."

Beth David owns YASNY Designs in Fairhaven.