The University of Illinois has banned the male pronoun. Starting Jan. 2, 2007, all print and web-based publications, whether for audiences inside oroutside the university, must follow the rules laid out in the style guide published by the universitys Office of Public Affairs. And in the section on nonsexist language, the style guide tells us:
Avoid gender-specific language such as the use of a male pronoun.
There it is in plain English: we may no longer refer to anyone’s gender specifically. What the U probably intended to write was something like this:
Avoid using a generic masculine pronoun when the antecedent includes both men and women.
But that’s not what the style guide says. (They also tell us not to use informal terms like “the U” when referring to the university, which is always supposed to be capitalized, but people who mistakenly outlaw gendered pronouns deserve to have their other rules ignored.)
You’d think that someone would be careful writing a set of language rules that everyone else is required to follow. But the way the style guide reads now, sentences like (a) and (b) are out:
(a) Everyone loves his mother.
(b) Everyone loves her mother.
Since we’re also told to avoid using they as a singular, (c) is out as well:
(c) Everyone loves their mother.
Plus it’s not altogether clear whether (d) would be approved, since while it’s certainly inclusive, it’s also gender specific:
(d) Everyone loves his or her mother.
If a professor or a dean is a women, we can’t call her her. If he’s a man, him is improper. What’s a writer to do?
Before the university style guide came along, English grammar was pretty clear on the matter: when referring to a person of the male persuasion, use a masculine (not male) pronoun. Use the feminine to refer to women. It’s when gender isn’t specified that English has a pronoun problem, causing people to resort to the generic masculine, the generic feminine, an inclusive but clumsy-if-overused him or her, or a singular they. Or they punt and rewrite the entire sentence in the plural:
(e) People love their mothers.
The U. actually encourages us to use the plural, which has the unintended effect of erasing such useful gender-neutral indefinites as someone, anyone, everyone, and nobody.
The Illinois Style Guide's mistake isn't surprising. Style guides either get it right, or they don’t. In my opinion, they mostly don’t. Of course, by the time you read this the problem may have been corrected: I’m not the only one to notice the university's sex ban, and I’m probably not the only one who fired off an email (they want me to write e-mail) pointing it out.
I actually think the University is right to encourage sex-neutral language, provided they're sensible about it. But fixing one rule won't make that much difference. There’s a bigger issue at stake than the fact that style and usage guides, despite their claims to be authoritative, are riddled with error and bad advice. I have no problem with a house style that sets parameters for spelling, punctuation, and usage. But it’s one thing to say that publications should look professional if they bear the university imprimatur, and it’s another to require blind obedience to rules, particularly ones that haven’t been thought through.
Like our logo, the style guide is supposed to help establish the university's brand, distinguishing us from Michigan, Wisconsin, California, and the rest of the competition. In a message to the campus, the administration explains that we need the new standards because “We are stronger when we speak as one.” But I don't see how writing e-mail with a hyphen, capitalizing Internet, or requiring commas to separate all the elements in a series of three or more does much to identify the University as a unique entity.
Even if they’d gotten the pronoun rule right the first time, style guides like the U of I's never really do the job they set out to do. Plus, unless the university’s planning to hire a squad of copy editors to check the faculty’s online prose, there’s no way they’re going to catch all the irregularities and inconsistencies endemic to the sentences that every writer produces.
Finally, there’s simply no usage regulation, no grammatical prescription, no punctuation cheat sheet, that’s going to produce linguistic consistency every time, in every context. That’s why style guides are guides, not commandments. And no matter how you feel about nonsexist language (again, I'm for it), there are some times when context requires one or the other gender to be excluded; times when gender-bending wreaks havoc not just with our pronouns, but also with more general notions of sex and gender; and times when we simply need to violate decorum and let off a little steam. Which is what I’m doing now.
UPDATE: the Style Guide was corrected by the university almost immediately, and the state's male pronouns have been spared the axe.
However, I've decided to leave this post on the Web of Language in the interests of historical accuracy, and because it's a good illustration of why editing advice should be dished out very, very carefully.