Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Random thoughts on Mr Gwynne, sex and gender

Neville Gwynne is the author of a best-selling grammar book 'Gwynne’s Grammar', modestly entitled 'The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English'. I confess to not having read Mr Gwynne's book, but I think we can get a fairly good idea as to the affable Mr Gwynne's attitude to English in various other ways: from an interview he gave on BBC Radio 5, from a grammar quiz he wrote for the Telegraph newspaper, from the Preface, first two chapters and recommended reading from the book itself, available to read at Amazon; and from various reviews, especially rather a long one in the Telegraph.
While I was reading the preface to his book at Amazon, I came across an apparent distinction between the words gender and sex I had only vaguely heard about before.

Mr Gwynne and grammar

Mr Gwynne is certainly an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher, evangelical even, and I wholeheartedly share his interest in grammar. His rather conservative approach to what is correct or not, however, is somewhat different to mine. He appears to have two basic premises:
  • a good knowledge of grammar makes us think better, which in turn makes us happier.
  • up until the 1960s, everything was more or less hunky-dory, and then the rot set in.
This is from the preface to his book:
“Moreover, up until the early 1960s, almost all changes of any kind that did take place over the years were for the better, with new words enriching the language, and small refinements of grammar and punctuation tending in the direction of greater precision and clarity.”
It's also telling that many of the grammar books in his recommended reading list were published more than half a century ago.
Mr Gwynne has also chosen to include in his book another grammar book, Strunk's Elements of Style, which, according to Professor of Lingistics and joint author of the influential Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Goeffrey K.Pullum, has been responsible for 'fifty years of bad grammar teaching'.

One example of Mr.Gwynne's grammar: singular they

In EFL we teach that they, them, their are often used after indefinite pronouns such as anyone, somebody etc instead of singular he or she, when we are not specific who we are talking about. This is known as 'singular they', and is used for example in the British government passport application form:
  • If anyone wants another cake, just help themselves.
  • Should anybody ring while I'm out, can you take their name.
This is what Mr Gwynne has to say on the subject:
On the one hand, I for the most part have taken trouble to avoid using 'he' to cover both sexes, although I never do what Mr.Heffer regards abominable - for instance, using 'their' when referring back to 'anyone' or 'no one'.
Although he does admit that it exists in English Literature, in Chapter One, Gwynne goes on to talk about:
the politically correct illiteracy, 'Anyone in doubt should ask their teacher', that would never have been made any level of society fifty or sixty years ago.
In fact 'singular they' was being used centuries before anyone dreamed about political correctness, including by renowned writers, at least informally.
'Mr.Heffer', incidentally, is Simon Heffer, style editor of the Telegraph, who is probably even more linguistically conservative than Mr.Gwynne, if the four extracts from his book that were published in the Telegraph are anything to go by. Gwynne calls Heffer's book, Strictly English:
another book that can be justly be described as a marvel, not least because its author is not a Burchfield-type liberal in language matters
R.W.Burchfield was a distinguished lexicographer, scholar, writer and one time chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who edited the Third Edition of 'Fowlers Dictionary of Modern English Usage', and who had much too modern an approach for Gwynne's liking.
But somewhat amusingly, Gwynne pulls Heffer up for not including in his list of examples of bad English, "the grossly illiterate but almost universal 'per capita' in place of the correct 'per caput' ". Onelook lists 39 dictionaries that have entries for 'per capita'. Of the five it lists having entries for 'per caput, three redirect to 'per capita', and the other two have 'not found'! Pedantic! moi?

Mr.Gwynne's Telegraph grammar test

Gwynne's test has twelve questions. Six questions, half the quiz, involve identifying the part of speech and the function of two words, near and nowhere, in six different contexts - nothing controversial here, but quite technical and rather a large proportion of the quiz, I would have thought. One was about Latin, not English; one (about the use of a defining relative clause) was OK but a bit silly; and one was unremarkable. Which left three controversial ones:
  • Which is correct?
    a. Do you see who I see?
    b. Do you see whom I see?
  • Which is correct?
    a. He had fewer men than in the previous campaign
    b. He had less men than in the previous campaign
  • Which of these lists is more traditionally correct and technically perfect?
    a. Firstly…, secondly…, thirdly…
    b. First ..., secondly, ... thirdly
The answer to the first is supposed to be 'whom', as it refers to the object of see, but hardly anybody would speak like that (and nor would I). In the second, as we have a countable noun, in theory we should use fewer, but many people (including me) would say less, especially in less formal contexts.
And lastly (or should that be last?) some people think a series like this should begin with First rather than Firstly, but this is more true of American English than British English. Quite what the logic (that makes this technically perfect) is, I don't know.
What is clear is that Gwynne follows the standard prescriptivist practice of allowing only formal English to be 'correct', and not giving any weight to how the language is actually spoken. In EFL we teach students the difference between formal English and normal English.

Mr.Gwynne, Sex and gender

But what I really want to talk about is Mr Gwynne, sex and gender. Reading the preface to his book at Amazon, I came across this:
“Oh, and one other thing under this heading of modernisms. The word to indicate whether someone is male or female is ‘sex’ not ‘gender,’ which is a purely grammatical term. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ are completely distinct words.”
“Against the ‘illiterate’ modern use of gender, therefore, I do believe it right that I and my readers, if they can be persuaded to, should fight”
I presume the somewhat strange construction in the second paragraph was occasioned by his disdain for ending a sentence with a preposition; a practice up with which he will not put, no doubt. But back to sex and gender. This is what Gwynne would no doubt approve of:

John Dryden - Fables Ancient and Modern 1700

But is this use of 'gender' to mean 'sex' really so modern?

In the 3rd edition of Fowler’s (which Gwynne certainly doesn't approve of), the editor, R.W. Burchfield points out that the OED shows that ‘gender’ has been used to denote ‘the sex of a person’ for centuries and the Online Etymology Dictionary traces this use back to the early 15th century. Oxford Dictionaries say:
The sense ‘the state of being male or female’ has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century.
In his famous dictionary, first published in 1755, Samuel Johnson gave three meanings for ' gender':
As did Noah Webster in his 1828 dictionary:
So to summarise, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries we have these three recognised definitions:
  1. a kind, a sort
  2. a sex
  3. the grammatical term
By the tenth edition of Johnson's dictionary, published in 1785, the first meaning carried the note “not in use”, and Webster also notes its use as obsolete. Strangely, many 19th century miniature and abridged versions of Johnson’s dictionary dropped the grammatical meaning but kept the obsolete one and simply defined gender as: “a sex, a kind, a sort”

Examples of ' gender' as 'sex' from the 18th and 19th centuries

Even so, most incidences of gender at Google Books between 1600 and 1900 are of the grammatical type, to be honest. But examples with the meaning of the sex of somebody can be found, and all the following examples come from known writers.
Some of these use gender to complete a rhyme, some use it in the same breath as sex, presumably to avoid repetition, some use it humorously and some without any particular weighting at all:
You can click on the extracts to go to Google Books. Remember that in those days printers often used a letter that looked very like an f to signify s, so for example:
= fresh.

Tobias Smollet - Peregrine Pickle 1751

Don Quixote translated by Tobias Smollet 1755
NB asses = donkeys

David Garrick - The Fribbleriad 1761
(fribble - Oxford Dictionaries)
Read the story behind the poem
and a contemporary view in The Critical Review of 1761

James Wilson 'Claudero' - Against low Dancing-schools 1765

Edward Ward - A Compleat and Humorous Account of All the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in London 1756

Fanny Burney - The Wanderer: or Female Difficulties 1814

The Monthly Magazine, or British Register, London 1820

The Monthly Review, London 1831

The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World, Charles MacFarlane, London 1837

C.J. Apperley (aka Nimrod) - Nimrod in France 1842

Edinburgh Review Vol 40 1842

Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities 1859

Times change 1

But something happened around the end of the nineteenth century. The 1899 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary apparently held that the use of gender to mean the sex of a person was ‘Now only jocular’ and Webster's was calling it obsolete or colloquial. In 1926, in his famous ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’ H.W.Fowler wrote:
“Gender is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or feminine g., meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder.”
And it is this view which Gwynne seems to hold.

Times change 2

But since Fowler wrote those words, there has been one major change which he probably hadn't foreseen, and which Gwynne seems to have completely ignored. When Fowler was writing, the word 'sex' was only used to define whether somebody was male or female, but that was soon to change. It was D.H.Lawrence, who, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, first used the word sex with the meaning of 'sexual intercourse', in 1929, although the expression 'sex drive' seems to have come earlier.
So that when the sexual revolution came along in the nineteen sixties, the word 'sex' had taken on an entirely different meaning from the one that Gwynne is talking about, and it's perhaps not surprising that people started to use the word 'gender' instead, when referring to the sex of a person. What's more, it's this definition of gender (the sex of a person) that is usually given first in modern dictionaries, for example at Oxford Dictionaries Online (see below).
Commenting of Fowler's comment 'a grammatical term only', linguist David Crystal says:
Not any more. The word has now an established (non-jocular) use in social contexts, where it si used to express a specific contrast with sex - socially or culturally constructed identity as opposed to physical or biological identity. (in his notes to the 2009 edition of H.W.Fowler's original 'A Ditionary of Modern English Usage)

Playing at being King Canute

Nowadays, 'gender' is so overwhelmingly used in the sense of 'the sex of a person' that trying to put the clock back would seem impossible. Looking at the first ten Google results for 'gender' at the Telegraph, a newspaper Gwynne seems to have some affinity with, (a feeling that seems mutual) we get the following:
  • four about differences in the education of boys and girls:
    • UCAS chief warns over 'worrying' university gender gap
    • A-level results 2013: warning over exam 'gender divide'
    • A gender gap that simply doesn't add up
    • Splitting school PE lessons by gender 'damages girls'
  • two about toys:
    • All Marks and Spencer toys to be gender neutral by spring 2014
    • Toys R Us to stop gender biased marketing
  • and four about gender abortions - people deciding to have abortions based on the sex (or gender) of the child, something the Telegraph is running a campaign on.
Looking further on, we find articles on the ‘gender pay gap’ - the difference between men’s and women’s salaries; about gender equality in France; on whether gender is important in the art world; and ‘gender wars’ in Australian politics. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is not one single example in the first hundred results at the Telegraph of gender being used in a grammatical sense.

A few more Ngram graphs - common collocations

In modern English, the word gender is most often used functioning as an adjective in conjunction with another noun - gender gap, for example. Sometimes this could be substituted with sex, sometimes withsexual would be more appropriate, so I've looked at the differences in the extent of usage between all three words. Among those Telegraph titles, gender gap came up quite a lot, and we also have gender divide, gender neutral and gender biased:
Well, sex doesn't get much of a look-in there, nor does sexual(ly) for that matter. At Netspeak the main collocations with gender are: equality, issues, studies, differences. These two graphs show how gender has largely taken over from sexual, and where sex is an also-ran:
Not that gender has it all its own way, in some collocations, sex is still in the lead:
And in others sexual. At Just the Word, another collocation finder, the main collocation is with difference, and something strange happens with difference and differences:

Mr Gwynne's rather narrow window

The use of the word gender to mean the sex of somebody was perfectly acceptable up to about the end of the nineteenth century, and this has been overwhelmingly its most common use since the nineteen sixties, so it seems rather strange that Gwynne should insist on a restrictive meaning which reflects such a short period of its existence.
This distinction is especially strange considering that we don't have much call for the grammatical use in English, as Modern English is not considered to have grammatical gender. We may have words for males and female of certain species, and for male and female practitioners of certain occupations, but that is not the same as grammatical gender. Remember learning whether French nouns took 'le' or 'la' and then what happened to accompanying adjectives; that's grammatical gender.
And just think, if we weren't allowed gender to mean sex, we wouldn't have the wonderful expression gender bender (a person who dresses and behaves in a way characteristic of the opposite sex. - Oxford)

Gender and sex. Part 2 - A different difference?

Ironically, some authorities see a completely different distinction between gender and sex - between that of social and cultural differences rather the 'biological' ones. We saw this is David Crystal's comment on Fowler. This is from Oxford Dictionaries:
1 [mass noun] the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones):
traditional concepts of gender
[count noun]
the members of one or other sex: differences between the genders are encouraged from an early age

Oxford Dictionaries

And they go on to say:
Although the words gender and sex both have the sense ‘the state of being male or female’, they are typically used in slightly different ways: sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender refers to cultural or social ones.
But even this distinction can get pretty blurred. When we talk of 'gender equality', we are talking about equality between people who are undeniably biologically men and women as well as about their social status. I think it's more to do with idiomatic use: we tend to use gender before another noun gender equality, but sex when we need a plural noun, equality of the sexes, for example.


Neville Gwynne and Gwynne's Grammar

The Telegraph grammar test



Unknown said...

It's telling that Gwynne thinks everything went to pot right around the time he reached adulthood. The golden age is always in our youth, and it's always the generation that comes after that ruins everything.

Warsaw Will said...

Hi Jonathon. Rear-view mirrorism I think it used to be called. But I think he at least partly equates it with the ending of traditional (and rather boring, as I remember it) grammar teaching in British schools. He seems to regard 'child-centred education' as some sort of swear word.

Just to let you know, I quoted from your 'Twelve mistakes' post (No 3 on register) on another recent post, on the use of whom.

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