I am sure you’ve all read the story. The Department of Religion at Hull University has decreed that undergraduates who fail to use “gender-neutral” language in their essays will have marks deducted. As I understand it, that means that essays which include the words he, she, her or him or which refer to things like manpower or fireman will be marked down. The University defends its policy by explaining that there are some people who prefer not to be identified as being male or female. In order not to offend those, admittedly very few, people, the University requires that the rest of us should be referred to, in the singular, as it, they or them.
I was interested to read the many comments beneath an article on the Telegraph’s website about Hull’s decree. One chap, sorry, person, in particular was insistent, in several comments, that the decree was entirely right. His (or its) point was the familiar one that that which people label as being politically correct is nothing more than good manners. In many cases, of course, that is absolutely true. Take the use of Ms rather than Mrs or Miss. I remember, when that started to become common, there were many who denounced it as political correctness. My own view was, always, that if someone wanted to be addressed as Ms, it was only polite to use that form of address. These days, of course, that particular usage has become the norm and no one seriously objects to it. But does Hull’s objection to he, she, him and her come into the same category of politeness rather than rather idiotic political correctness?
I have to say that I don’t think Hull is only insisting on politeness. It has gone far beyond that. It has not said that reference to people who want to be referred to by “gender-neutral” pronouns as “it” should be mandatory. What it has said is that we should all be referred to as “it”, even if most of us find that usage annoying or even offensive. Furthermore, a failure to annoy most people, Hull has decided, should result in examination results being lowered. I just don’t see how that can be thought of as being polite.
There is another point. Clumsy efforts to avoid words like he and she tend to lead to writing which becomes unreadable. I do accept that we have got used to the use of the plural when the writer fears the singular might be thought to be sexist. “Anyone who says he is angry about political correctness” becomes “Anyone who says they are angry about political correctness”. Being an awful pedant, I find the latter horribly ugly, but I am getting used to it. I’m not sure, however, that I could ever get used to “Sarah grimaced and its face became ashen”, or “Sarah grimaced and their face became ashen”. Hull University, however, wishes to turn out lots of future writers who will adopt that usage.
I wonder which side you are on?