Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy

More than 300 teachers in France said they would no longer teach the rule that “the masculine prevails over the feminine” when it came to plural nouns. Credit Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
More than 300 teachers in France said they would no longer teach the rule that “the masculine prevails over the feminine” when it came to plural nouns. Credit Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I still remember my sense of indignation when my high school French teacher told us about the rule: French nouns have a gender, even seemingly sexless ones like “table.” And if you had a mixed group of masculine and female nouns — say, a bunch of male students (étudiants) and female students (étudiantes) — you had to describe them, as a group, in the masculine.

“What if there are 99 female students and one male student?” I demanded.

It didn’t matter, the teacher said. What’s more, if you wrote a sentence about attractive (beaux) étudiants and attractive (belles) étudiantes, the adjective used to describe them had to be masculine, too: “Les étudiants et les étudiantes sont beaux.”

That was just the way French was, she said.

The sexism of that stung. And that was even before I discovered that one of the rationales for this rule in which one man trumped an infinite number of women was that “the masculine gender is deemed more noble than the feminine gender because of the superiority of man over woman.”

That line, from a 1767 grammar book, was cited this month in a declaration signed by 314 teachers in France that they would no longer teach the rule that “the masculine prevails over the feminine” when it came to plural nouns.

The teachers’ objection was not just philosophical; it was philological. The rule, they said in the French version of Slate, was a parvenu (it was enunciated in the 17th century and became widely taught only in the 19th century) and politically motivated (it buttressed French laws that denied women equal rights). Besides that, they said, the rule encourages children “to accept the domination of one sex over the other” to the detriment of women.

In its place, the teachers suggested using “the rule of proximity,” in which the adjective matches the gender of the noun closest to it, which was common practice for centuries. Or they said, people could use “majority agreement,” with the adjective matching the gender of the noun with the biggest number of members. Or even, they said, writer’s choice.

Unsurprisingly, in a country that defends its language with an official grammar arbiter and has a fondness for the circumflex, efforts to make French more gender-inclusive have been met with dismay: Members of the grammar-policing French Academy complained that they put French in “mortal peril,” and on Tuesday, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe forbade the use of “so-called inclusive writing” in official texts.

Even the French minister for equality between men and women, Marlène Schiappa, seemed taken aback by the teachers’ declaration, though she said it was a worthy topic of discussion by language experts. Naturally, she was careful to describe such experts as both “grammairiens” (masculine) and “grammairiennes” (feminine).

As a person in the 21st century, I have to applaud the teachers’ revolt; as a person whose job it is to make sure writers are using correct grammar, I worry about my mortgage. Still, given how slowly French has changed over the centuries, at least compared with English, it seems likely that this is a debate that could continue for, well, centuries. (It’s not just French, by the way. Other languages, including Spanish and Arabic, also give the masculine the starring role.)

But before we Anglophones congratulate ourselves on having a language that has pretty much jettisoned grammatical gender, we should consider “everybody” and the default “he.”

Everybody is a problem. It’s singular, and so when it’s the subject of a sentence, it gets a singular verb. But then what happens later when it’s time for a possessive pronoun? Logically, grammatically, it should be singular too. But what sex is everybody?

Like many Americans, I was taught that the answer was male by default, with the classic example being “Everybody brought his own lunch.” Yet it’s rare to hear such a construction in spoken speech, and in my experience as an editor, increasingly rare in writing. “Everyone is bringing their own lunch,” or “Everybody sees themselves differently,” we say, swapping the matching singular pronoun for a plural one.

That default he no longer sits right with us, while alternating he and she may come across as intrusive or self-conscious. Yet The Times’s stylebook is adamant: “Anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, no one, someone, all require he or she (never they) on further reference: Has anybody lost his ticket?” It goes on to say, “As a last resort, the awkward his or her is tolerable; a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent is not.”

Most of the time, it’s easy enough to rewrite to avoid both the jarring default he and the agreement error, but sometimes I stare at a sentence and long for the day the “singular they” (which, Merriam-Webster says, has been used since the 1300s) is acceptable everywhere. That seems to be the case in Britain; with everybody, Fowler’s Modern English Usage approves of the use of a singular verb and a plural pronoun.

Oddly enough, it’s French, with all its gendered nouns, that sidesteps the everybody problem: The possessive pronouns that follow the French version of everybody match the gender of the noun being possessed, so it’s effectively “Everybody is bringing his/her/its own lunch.” Of course, for French learners, that means you have to remember that “lunch” (déjeuner) is masculine. But since the lunch is French, at least you’ll know it’s delicious.

Carmel McCoubrey is a staff editor for the Opinion section.

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