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Inclusive Language: Is It Necessary?

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

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  • Description:
    This article is an essay on inclusive language that records its history in liturgical and biblical usage and the problems it creates both for theology and the English language as a whole.
  • Larger Work:
    New Oxford Review
  • Pages: 6-14
  • Publisher & Date:
    New Oxford Review Inc., March 1997

The title of my article asks if so-called inclusive language is necessary. A typical reply to this question today might well be "Necessary? We have it; it's here; it's not likely to go away."

"Inclusive language," as today's feminists understand the term, means avoiding the generic use of nouns such as "man" or "mankind" when referring to all human beings, and avoiding the use of the masculine gender pronouns, "he," "his," and "him," either when referring to a generic singular antecedent such as "everybody" or — a much more serious issue from the Catholic point of view — when referring to God revealed and understood as "Father." According to feminist theory, "man" and related words, as well as the masculine gender pronouns, refer primarily or exclusively to males; women are therefore held to be "excluded" by the use of these words. Hence there is the perceived need to deploy language which "includes" them, saying "person" instead of "man," or "humankind" instead of "mankind," for example; this is "inclusive language."

Related to the inclusivity question is the avoidance of the use of the feminine gender third-person singular pronoun, "she," to refer to anything but an animate female individual, and, in general, the avoidance of any words or expressions considered insulting or demeaning to women.

The elites of our society today have largely granted to the feminist movement the right to dictate language usage with respect to these questions. Thus special, often laboriously coined language specifically "inclusive" of women seems to have become, at least for the moment, de rigueur in modern American culture; it is held to be required by courtesy, if not by simple justice, to women. The case for it is generally not even argued any longer, if it ever was truly argued; it is simply taken for granted.

In this cultural climate, many major publications and publishers have revised their guidelines and style books to require inclusive language. Many universities require the same thing from students writing term papers or dissertations. Dictionaries, such as the recent unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language, include in their "Basic Manual of Style" a section on "Avoiding Sexism" (the very use of the term "sexism" identifies this dictionary section as an express concession to the feminists and their characteristically charged vocabulary).

Public, if not Catholic, education at all levels has similarly been "sensitized" to the perceived need for language inclusivity, at least to some degree. Many if not most of the newer textbooks reflect a pronounced feminist bias, and teachers are increasingly indoctrinated in the need for "sensitivity" and "justice" where "women" are concerned. The National Council of Teachers of English has now decreed, contrary to what many of us learned in grade school, that it is now permitted to use the third person plural personal pronouns, "they," "their," or "them," to refer back to an indefinite singular antecedent such as "everybody" — e.g., "Everybody should be aware of their [rather than the former his] prejudices against granting women their long-denied rights."

This is a usage which even the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary now allows. And the federal government too is going "gender neutral"; bureaucratic directives solemnly prescribe such new usages, so much so, writes one reporter, that "for some federal workers, the new rule is: When in doubt, call him or her anything but him or her." (The fact that such bureaucratic edicts have to be issued points not to any natural, organic development of the language, as feminists try to claim, but rather to continuing resistance to artificially imposed usage.)

Curiously, some men are even shy about calling themselves men. When Cardinal Bernardin was dying last summer, he said that, "as a person of faith" he saw death as a friend. Would that he had simply said "as a Catholic," for "person of faith" falsely implies that one faith is as valid and salvific as any other. But he didn't even say "as a man of faith," probably because nowadays even "man of faith" would be abrasive to the hypersensitive feminist ear. Presumably, Bernardin, the celebrated seeker of "Common Ground," was trying to be thoroughly "inclusive." But in avoiding the particularistic words "Catholic" and "man," he turned his faith into a generic and himself into something other than a man.

All of us are aware of the usages that are frowned on — and more than frowned on — by ideological feminist theory; and many of us often do tend to avoid them because of the all-pervasive influence feminist ideology has had on contemporary society. After all, nobody really wants to be insensitive or unjust to women, and when we are told repeatedly and insistently that certain ways of speaking which we may well have been using all our lives are insensitive or unjust to women, we understandably tend to try to change or drop them. For example, scarcely anybody dares to refer to women — even high school co-eds — as "girls" any longer — although it still seems to be acceptable for feminists to deplore and deride "old-boy networks."

Similarly, it is now acceptable in most quarters to refer to people as "chairs" — even as we have largely ceased to refer to the Church, the Bride of Christ, as "she." Meanwhile, the National Weather Service has long since stopped using exclusively feminine names to designate hurricanes; nor is it hard to imagine how the old expression, "There she blows," used when a well strikes oil, would go over in today's politically correct atmosphere.

And the dull and flat passive voice, along with the third person plural, has taken on new life today as people nervously seek for substitutes and alternatives for dreaded generic (masculine gender) nouns and pronouns. Such has been the power of feminist ideology; and most people seem to assume that, whatever we might think of the radical feminist and politically correct revolutions we have undergone, they are now accomplished facts and wholly irreversible.

Certainly this seems to be the viewpoint of many of those responsible for questions of language and liturgy in the Catholic Church today. For example, Bishop Donald Trautman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy stated that, "inclusive language is a necessity in our American idiom and culture today." Msgr. Frederick McManus, an original member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), has written that, "the question of inclusive language was largely resolved in the liturgical and biblical fields during the 1970s and 1980s." — i.e., it was "resolved" long before most American Catholics were even aware there was a "question."

Actually, the ICEL began using inclusive language in its translations of Roman liturgical texts from Latin into English as early as 1975, and it received full Church approval for such ritual books using inclusive language as the 1985 Order of Christian Funerals, as well as for some other liturgical books.

And successive segments of the current ongoing ICEL revision of the English Sacramentary of the Roman Missal employing inclusive language have regularly continued to be approved by large, although diminishing, majorities of the American bishops. The bishops approved the basic idea of inclusive language when they approved their Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use in 1990.

The following year the bishops approved for liturgical use in the U.S. the Protestant inclusive-language New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, and the Revised New American Bible (RNAB), of which only the New Testament and Psalms have been completed, however. These Bible translations received virtually automatic approval from the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome in 1992. The U.S. bishops also submitted a revised Lectionary with the Scripture readings for Mass based on the RNAB. Up to this point, then, there was hardly anything in anybody's mind but that inclusive language in both Scripture and the liturgy was definitely the coming thing.

Then a funny thing happened on the road to complete ecclesiastical acceptance of inclusive language. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome discovered that a proposed inclusive-language English translation of Catechism of the Catholic Church was unacceptable as a document of faith, and required that it be retranslated. Then, in the fall of 1994, the CDF requested that the approval of the NRSV and the RNAB, which the Congregation for Divine Worship had granted two years earlier, be rescinded — and it was rescinded.

We shall return to this particular topic, but it is worth stressing that up to this point there had been scarcely a cloud on the inclusive-language horizon as far as the Catholic Church in English-speaking lands was concerned. Most of the voices heard in the Church, like most of those heard in society at large, betrayed no hint that anything other than strict inclusive language could ever be on our agenda for the future.

One of the translators of the RNAB, Fr. Richard J. Clifford, S.J., has declared flatly that, "inclusive language is part of North American culture." To suggest otherwise, to continue to question the necessity of inclusive language, including in scriptural and liturgical texts, would be, according to Clifford, "to imply that all publishers, editors, and station masters who have developed inclusive-language guidelines are dupes in a scheme to impose on a quarter of a billion people the dialect of a radical feminist cadre."

What Clifford expresses probably reflects what many people have come to think today: If this is what women really want, it should be granted to them, even if it is awkward and inconvenient in view of the way people have always spoken English.

Along with the acceptance of inclusive language, there has nevertheless remained a distinct uneasiness about the awkwardness, even absurdity, into which consistent attempts to use inclusive language sometimes lead. Even its promoters are often aware of how vulnerable to satire and even mockery and ridicule the stilted and artificial kind of language usage it results in can sometimes be; but they just believe that sensitivity and justice to women require it anyway.

An essayist and professed feminist, Anne Fadiman, writing in the Washington Post, recently articulated some of that uneasiness when she deplored "the United Church of Christ's new 'inclusive' hymnal, in which 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind' has been replaced by 'Dear God, Embracing Humankind.' The end is estimable," she writes. "It's the means that chafe. I'm not sure I want to be embraced by a God with such a tin ear." In the face of some of the recent politically correct changes in some of our hymns, many Catholics can well understand the feeling.

Reflecting upon what perhaps not a few feminists have also felt, Fadiman continues: "I find my peace as a reader and writer rent by a war between two opposing semantic selves, one feminist and one reactionary.... My reactionary self…prevails when I hear someone attempt to purge the bias from 'to each his own' by substituting 'to each their own.' The disagreement between pronoun and antecedent is more than I can bear," she laments — regardless of what the National Council of Teachers of English, and even the Oxford English Dictionary, may now have decided about this usage.

"What about 'to each his or her own'?" she goes on to ask, and adds: "I do resort to that construction occasionally, but I find the double pronoun an ungainly burden. More frequently, I recast the entire sentence in the plural, although 'to all their own' is slightly off pitch...."

So it goes: Fadiman's essay vividly reflects a common dilemma encountered by speakers and writers today: Even when it is accepted that inclusive language is necessary, it is sometimes far from clear how to manage it. Fadiman mentions the burden of "planning each sentence in advance like a military campaign" — which is a lot to expect from the average speaker and writer of English. Inclusive language is not natural; it does not represent an organic development of the English language. Rather, it has been imposed on the language from outside by feminist ideology. It is still not clear whether this imposition really works — or can work.

How, for example, can we make the simple generic statement, "All men are brothers," using inclusive language? It is possible, of course, to say, "All men and women are brothers and sisters"; but in addition to what even a feminist such as Fadiman would agree is the ungainliness of such a construction, there is the not inconsiderable fact that it does not mean exactly the same thing as the original expression. Moreover, it is not generic in its reference; by making it sex specific, we end up referring only to adult males and females, and children are now excluded.

This kind of subtle alteration of meaning is frequently found in efforts to use inclusive language consistently (especially in the inclusive-language translations of Scripture). We could always go with "All human beings are siblings," but, in addition to what would be lost in elegance and grace, the meaning would change, for "brothers," a generic term, is not the equivalent of "siblings," a biological term merely meaning individuals who have one or both parents in common. "All human beings are brothers and sisters" might finally do it, but such a construction is not going to win any literary prizes. The problem is real.

Even so, Fadiman decides that she just "can't go back." Many others seem to agree. But she nevertheless concludes her essay with the significant observation that, "Changing our language to make men and women equal has a cost."

For a creedal faith such as Catholicism, where precise expression of meaning is fundamental to right belief, it may well be that the cost of adopting inclusive language is too high, quite apart from the question of how inclusive language impairs the beauty of our worship.

Is inclusive language here to stay? Is it, as Fr. Clifford claims, "part of North American culture"? Apparently this is believed by many of us to be the case, and many of us therefore do try — I almost said "manfully"! — to use inclusive language consistently in our speech and writing.

But it is hard to use it consistently, and even those convinced of its need sometimes lapse, particularly if they are not specifically thinking about it ("planning each sentence in advance like a military campaign"). Occasionally, it appears to be impossible, or at least very difficult, to say properly what we really mean, as we saw with the expression, "All men are brothers," and as Fadiman remarked about "to each his own."

In the present climate many people do not let this bother them very much; they are so ideologized that they appear oblivious to the effects sometimes produced by following the logic of inclusivity wherever it may lead. There is, for example, the classical-music radio personality who solemnly announced a performance of Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Person. (Groan.) Then there is the bumper sticker proclaiming: IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THANK A TEACHER. PAY THEM TOO! (Another groan.)

Then from the NRSV Bible there is the passage from Revelation 21:3-4 reading: "See, the home of God is among mortals [instead of "with men," as in the Revised Standard Version]. He will dwell with them... and death will be no more...." But how can death be "no more" if those among whom God is dwelling are "mortals"? Unfortunately, many such discrepancies are found in Scripture translations determined to avoid "man" or "men."

I could spend a great deal of time citing such examples. Nevertheless, so long as ideological feminism retains power over the contemporary mind, few people seem inclined to draw any conclusions regarding the ultimate unsuitability of inclusive language from the unsuitable examples they frequently encounter.

But precisely because inclusive language is so unnatural, people often lapse. When I began writing this essay, I collected examples of writings in the mainstream press that failed to use inclusive language. I quickly accumulated quite a few examples (more than I can enumerate here), in spite of all the current stylebooks and inclusive-language guidelines. For example, I encountered instances where women journalists wrote quite unselfconsciously about:

• a woman astronaut beginning her stay in a manned spacecraft;

• a woman senator being a former chairman of a Senate subcommittee;

• a woman coach of a girls' basketball team regrouping her players in man-to-man defense.

Then there was the construction used by Meg Greenfield, Editorial Page Editor of the Washington Post and Newsweek columnist — surely one of the princesses of today's political correctness, if, indeed, the word "princess" is even allowed to be used any longer — writing about the emphasis placed on "family values" at both national political conventions. Greenfield wrote as follows:

God is watching all this — and so are the media and the political opposition. My point is that no one should think he is going to get away with anything on that score.... Something there is in politics that lets an otherwise intelligent person, after a while, forget the mote in his own eye, and go on an absolute binge of a crusade against the other guy's beam... (italics added).

Of course, she got mote and beam reversed, but she didn't fail on correct English usage. Speaking of the word "guy," an incident I myself witnessed at the Memorial Day celebration in the town where I live involved a subteenage member of an all-girl band; fearful of being left behind by the other departing band members after their performance, she was hastily packing her instrument into its case as she called out to the other girls. "Hey, you guys, wait for me!" — thus practically reinventing by herself, as it were, the traditional English generic form using a masculine gender noun — and this in spite of all she had undoubtedly been taught about how this was now a no-no. This usage of "you guys," while still quite common, is strictly speaking a violation of the canons of so-called inclusive language.

Feminists often deplore the lack in English of a gender neutral noun, such as the Greek Anthropos, Latin Homo, or German Mensch, which unambiguously denotes a human being without regard to sex. "Man" has had to do double duty in English in this regard (as l'homme has in French, or l'uomo in Italian). But the perceived problem of inclusivity is not always solved by deploying a neutral noun, as we can easily see in the line from Schiller's "Ode to Joy" which Beethoven set to music in his Ninth Symphony: "Alle Menschen werden Bruder" ("All human beings will become brothers"). The masculine gender word has to be brought in as the predicate nominative in order to express the full meaning of the sentence, even where the neutral noun is present!

In other words, the generic form using masculine gender words just may serve a unique and perhaps even irreplaceable purpose in English communication. I therefore do not believe we can conclude that generic language has seen its day. It fits the genius of the language and seems to serve a purpose not obviously served in any other way, just as it may sometimes express shades of meaning not expressed in any other way (except perhaps by an entire explanatory paragraph). Perhaps that is why the English language has employed it for the last 1,000 years — not with any intention of excluding or demeaning women, but simply because there is no other easy way, given English structure, to express certain things.

Moreover, standard English has not disappeared in our day. We have already seen a few examples; we can quickly take note of a few more. Senator John McCain of Arizona, nominating Robert Dole for president at the Republican National Convention, did not bat an eye when delivering himself of the following sentence in his nominating speech (nor was there any notable public criticism of him afterwards):

In America, we celebrate the virtues of the quiet hero, the modest man who does his duty without complaint or expectation of praise, the man who listens closely for the call of his country, and when she calls, he answers without reservation... (italics added).

And consider this sentence from the acceptance speech of nominee Bob Dole himself:

The first thing you learn on the prairie is the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land. Under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small, and if he thinks otherwise, he is wrong (italics added).

Compare the probable impact of the following on the national television audience with what Dole actually said: "Under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a person is very small, and if he or she thinks otherwise, he or she is (or: they are) wrong."

Which version would you use if you were running for president? And while we are on the subject of political discourse, it is worth recalling what Angela ("Bay") Buchanan, sister and campaign manager of erstwhile presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan, was quoted by the media as saying about the management of her brother's presidential campaign: "It's a three-man team! Me, Shelley [Pat's wife], and Pat..." (italics added).

Some may rejoin that the Republicans, being so naturally chauvinistic and reactionary themselves, surely do not provide very good examples of how English ought to be spoken today. So as our final example of how inclusive language is not, in fact, being consistently used in mainstream discourse in this country today, let us turn to our current First Lady, considered by some to be the veritable queen of political correctness, even while many others rank as princesses. Speaking to an audience of Methodists and Episcopalians, Mrs. Clinton actually counseled them to, "Look at every child as if he had the face of Jesus... " (italics added).

Anyone can collect many more examples like these simply by paying attention to how most people still naturally do talk most of the time, even after more than a quarter of a century of massive feminist pressure and indoctrination, aided and abetted by the mass media and some of the major institutions of our society. But just as the Communist regimes failed to create what they called the "new man" (!) after 75 years of tyrannical effort, so it is still not clear whether the feminists will ultimately succeed in imposing their particular variety of Orwell's Newspeak on speakers of English.

What all the examples cited indicate was memorably said by the Roman poet Horace long before there even was any English language: "Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret" ("You may throw nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back").

Nothing can remedy the fact that inclusive language is simply unnatural in English, and hence people tend to lapse back into standard generic English whenever they are not specifically thinking about trying to abide by feminist standards ("inclusive language," by the way, should really be called feminist language, for generic English is already inclusive). Many people may still go on trying to use "inclusive language," however stilted and awkward the results sometimes are, so long as ideological feminism continues to exert the influence it does on the mental climate of the day. In this regard, we should recall that the influence of feminist ideology is one of the principal things that also helped make legalized abortion possible in this country, and which still helps maintain its legality.

Yes, it is unfortunately true that inclusive language is currently "part of North American culture" — but in the same sense that legalized abortion is part of our culture today — that is, owing to the influence of ideologies which even many good people fail to see through until it is too late. Where inclusive language is concerned, it turns out that, as Joyce Little has aptly remarked, "Big Brother is Big Sister." Politicians, federal judges, Army generals, Navy admirals — and, sadly, not a few Catholic bishops — often seem to be afraid of the power of the feminists today, if they do not themselves actually agree with some of the principal feminist tenets.

The promotion of inclusive language today, then, represents an ideological manipulation of language by an organized revolutionary group; the radical feminist movement today dictates politically correct language in the same way the Russian Revolution dictated the use of "comrade" and other kinds of correct language—e.g., "enemies of the people," "running dogs of capitalism," and, curiously, "male chauvinist."

The fact that many people attempt to use the imposed new requirements of politically correct speech in no way means that these have now become standard and even popular. Once ideological pressures abate, people may begin to revert to a more natural way of speaking.

This seems to be happening now. The power of ideological feminism has surely peaked in our society, and we are beginning to discern more than a few of the unfortunate results of our society's embrace of feminism. Even prominent feminists are having second thoughts, as attested by the popularity of such current books as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life and Christina Hoff Sommers's Who Stole Feminism?

Should the Catholic Church adopt inclusive language in Scripture translations and in her liturgy? Can she really do so?

Now that we have seen how inclusive language both distorts certain necessary linguistic functions in English and alters certain basic meanings, much could be said in answer to both questions, but I will only make a couple of brief concluding points.

In view of the serious problems of doctrine and meaning inevitably raised by inclusive language, the degree of official Church approval it has enjoyed up to now needs to be re-examined. Perhaps that is what Rome is doing in the case of the rescission of the NRSV and RNAB Bible translations and the delay in approving the proposed new Lectionary; Rome's intervention in this matter has surely come not a moment too soon.

The reaction of the scriptural-liturgical establishment in this country, however, has been to fight Rome on the grounds that "the legitimate authority of the U.S. bishops to decide on translations for the liturgy has been called into question" by Rome, as Fr. Clifford, has claimed. Fr. Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., a Catholic University professor of Scripture and one of the RNAB translators, is similarly "shocked, shocked" that objectors to inclusive language "are criticizing the judgment of the bishops" —as if he and his friends and colleagues were not criticizing the judgment of the Holy See!

Critics of inclusive language are chided for ignoring the U.S. bishops' Criteria on the subject, while members of the scriptural-liturgical establishment are apparently free to disdain or belittle Rome's proper doctrinal concerns. But American Catholics frankly cannot repose much confidence in a scriptural-liturgical establishment that seems more driven by modern feminist imperatives than by the integrity of Catholic doctrine.

In particular, the U.S. bishops' Criteria for inclusive language translations urgently need to be revisited. So patently do these Criteria seem to have been taken from secular culture that they actually speak of not "excluding" people on account of creed, as well as race, sex, etc. — as if the Catholic Church did not have her own obligatory creed! But now, it seems, the Catholic Church is not supposed to "discriminate" on the basis of "creed." The principle of nondiscrimination suddenly seems to have trumped the articles of faith.

More particularly, the bishops' Criteria claim to preserve the often-mentioned distinction between using inclusive language to apply "horizontally" to human beings, while retaining traditional language which applies "vertically" to God revealed as "Father." In practice, however, the Criteria give away the keys to the store when they concede that "it may sometimes be useful...to repeat the name of God... rather than use the masculine pronoun in every case." Even though the Criteria go on to specify that "care must be taken that repetition not become tiresome," dropping the masculine pronouns in accordance with feminist ideology nevertheless quickly becomes the new norm, once it is allowed at all, as we can readily see in the case of some of the new translations of the Psalms.

For example, a company called Liturgy Training Publications, which I understand is connected with the Archdiocese of Chicago, is currently advertising the ICEL Psalter for sale, proudly highlighting the fact that it "uses inclusive language for human beings and for God" (emphasis added).

In other words, the scriptural-liturgical establishment — the ICEL itself no less — is evidently not required to follow the bishops' Criteria', inclusive language referring to God is now openly being used contrary to those Criteria. But the Criteria are invoked against anyone who criticizes inclusive language. The ICEL translators are thus apparently free to publish and advertise translations manifestly not in conformity with these same bishops' guidelines, but critics of inclusive language are supposed to sit down and shut up.

Finally, the current argument that inclusive language is "necessary" in the Church in justice to women is the same argument that is regularly employed to justify the ordination of women. This basic argument holds that "injustice enters when the denial [of ordination] rests upon a category: womanhood," in the words of Sr. Elizabeth Carroll. "Womanhood" is precisely what is thought to be excluded unjustly by generic language, which employs masculine words and grammatical forms. Indeed, many proponents of inclusive language in the liturgy have expressly linked their cause with that of female ordination.

However, in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II definitively declared the disputed question of women's ordination to be settled and closed — and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith informed us that the Pope judged it to be an infallible teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium when he taught that "the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church."

Therefore, the exclusion of women from the priesthood is not unjust. By a reasonable extension of the same line of thought, it would surely seem that the Church is not being unjust to women in using traditional generic language. Moreover, generic language is inclusive and was intended to be. That's why it's called "generic." And no woman, whether or not a feminist, felt "excluded" by generic language before, say, A.D. 1970.

These two issues, the push for priestesses and the supposed exclusion of women by standard English usage, cannot help but be linked in people's minds. So if dissenting Catholics want to keep the priestess issue alive and stirred up, in spite of the Pope's infallible judgment — and at a time when what is really needed is greater understanding of the Magisterium's judgment in the matter, along with reconciliation and healing — then by all means the U.S. scriptural-liturgical establishment should be allowed to go on agitating for inclusive language in English Scripture translations and in the liturgy.


Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, is the translator of some 20 books from French, German, or Italian, and the author or co-author of seven books.

© New Oxford Review

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