The Mail

To the Editors of the Crimson:

A recent article ("Two Women Liberate Church Course," Nov, II) mentions a proposal by some members of our community calling for a ban on the use of man, men, and masculine pronouns "to refer to all people." This proposal to recast part of the grammar of the English language reflects a concern which we as linguists would like to try to alleviate.

Many of the grammatical and lexical oppositions in language are not between equal members of a pair but between two entities one of which is more "marked" than the other (to use the technical term). The more marked member carries more information, lends to be less frequent, and always means exactly what it says. The less marked member carries less information, since it can be used ambiguously or as a cover term for both, tends to be the more frequent, and can be substituted for the marked member. Thus the plural is more marked than the singular, since, for example, the singular can be used for plural reference (many a horse horse-thief), but not the other way around. Markedness is one of the fundamental principles which govern the organization of the internal economics of all human languages.

In the matter of gender, in some cases the feminine is unmarked, in other cases the masculine. The feminine goose is unmarked--geese can be all male, all female, or of mixed sex, but ganders are all male. On the other hand the masculine lion is unmarked--contrast the possible ranges of meaning of lions and lionesses.

For people and pronouns in English the masculine is the unmarked and hence is used as a neutral or unspecified term. This reflects the ancient pattern of the Indo-European languages, seen also, for example, in French: hommes et femmes heureux "happy men and women" (with the masculine form of the adjective). Thus we say: All men are created equal. Each student shall discuss his paper topic with his section man. Madam Chairman, I object.


The fact that the masculine is the unmarked gender in English (or that the feminine is unmarked in the language of the Tunica Indians) is simply a feature of grammar. It is unlikely to be an impediment to any change in the patterns of the sexual division of labor toward which our society may wish to evolve. There is really no cause for anxiety or pronoun-envy on the part of those seeking such changes.

Ives Goddard

Visking Lecturer

Michael Silverstein

Junior Fellow

Calvert Watkins

Chairman, Department of Linguistics

Elmar Haugen

Professor of Scandinavian and Linguistics

Sandra L. Chung