The great South Carolina classicist and Confederate soldier Basil L. Gildersleeve once joked that the war was fought over a point of grammar: “ ‘United States are,’ said one, ‘United States is,’ said another.” The war did not settle the question, however, and as late as 1909, Ambrose Bierce was still defending the use of “the United States are.” As he put it, “Grammar has not a speaking acquaintance with politics, and patriotic pride is not schoolmaster to syntax.” I wait in vain for neo-Confederates to revive this charming usage.
There is a contemporary battle over language that again pits a political interest against the rules of grammar. In this case, the political interest is feminism which, in these emasculated times, has something like the force of Union sentiment in 1863, so the rules of grammar have crumpled like the Confederates at the Battle of Lookout Mountain.
Until perhaps the 1970s, civilized English-speakers said things like “everyone should try his best.” No one doubted that “his” included both men and women -- no one except feminists, that is, who insisted they felt left out. They beefed in their shrill, humorless way, and for a while, there was a clumsy concession to both grammar and politics, in which people said “everyone should do his or her best.” A few people still try to please both camps this way, but the vast majority has abandoned principle, and hardly anyone now winces at such barbarisms as: “A leader must inspire their followers.” “If you have a friend, tell them to come.” “No one did their homework.” And why not something like, “My good friend can help themself to my clothes if they like.”
The English language distinguishes between singular and plural, and “they,” “them,” and “their” are always plural. “He” and “she” are singular, and when sex is not specified, “he” stands for either. If some hoyden claims that “he” excludes her, ask her if she really thinks the expression “he who hesitates is lost” does not apply to women, or that even if man cannot live by bread alone, woman can.
A sentence such as “No one did their homework” actually means something, but not what the ignoramuses and fanatics think it does. It means that no one in one group did the homework assigned to a different group, as in “Everyone did his homework but no one did their homework.” On the other hand, a sentence like “If you have a friend, tell them to come” can never be anything but hopelessly wrong. It is as wrong as “he are sick” or “we is lost” or “she likes themself.”
Are questions of grammar only small points, not worth fighting over? No, they chart the course of decline just as surely as legislation or demographics. One of the ways ideologies prevail is by tampering with speech. American cities no longer have bums; they have “the homeless,” as if the wino sleeping in the park had just lost a $300,000 split-level to a tornado. No one is shiftless or lazy anymore; instead he is “downtrodden,” as if someone forced him at gunpoint into a life of loafing. And, of course, there are all the newly invented words for newly invented crimes that didn’t exist a few decades ago: homophobia, sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc. This sort of thing, repeated over and over, shackles the mind.
Conservatives, especially, should not let their speech be pushed around by self-righteous lunatics. They should know that language, like behavior, has rules for right and wrong, and these should almost never be changed. Talk like a man, not like a eunuch. Be on the lookout for an opportunity to drop this sentence into your conversation: “Man, being a mammal, suckles his young.”