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September 8th, 2004

He when it means she / proven vs. proved

by Barbara Wallraff

Yolanda Thomas, of Harper Woods, Mich., writes: “I disagree with your response, in a recent column, to a woman who asked for a third-person-singular pronoun to refer to people of unknown gender. We have one: It is ‘he.’ An example: ‘He who hesitates is lost.’ A similar thing has happened to ‘man.’ ‘Man’ has as its secondary sense ‘any adult person.’ An example: ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’

“This slide away from common English usage is due to feminists who discovered sexism in grammar that is centuries old and in which no sexism existed. I hope someday soon we can reclaim our language.”

Dear Yolanda: I used to share your view that “he” and “man” can refer neutrally to any person. Then one day about 15 years ago I taught a session of a summer program for college graduates who wanted to work in publishing. I told the class something like what you just told me: I’d been brought up believing that “he” could mean me, and I didn’t feel excluded by the word. Several students -- young men as well as women -- stood up and angrily denounced me. That’s when I realized that this battle has been lost.

A person who uses “he” -- or “man” -- generically now is liable to make readers or listeners mad. Either that, or the person will come across as being out of touch. Note that your example sentences are time-honored maxims whose language seems old. If we come up with a new sentence containing a generic “he” -- for instance, “Someone who wants his ideas to be taken seriously should be careful how he phrases things” -- it does sound biased in favor of men. As for “man,” have you heard this other time-honored maxim containing the word: “‘Man’ embraces ‘woman’”? This is supposed to mean that ‘man’ can refer to a person of either sex -- but hey, come on! No smirking, please.

Of course you’re right that time was, “he” and “man” used generically weren’t considered sexist. Time was, too, it wasn’t considered sexist to award female college students just a small fraction as many sports scholarships as were given to males; to hire women as secretaries and assistants but scarcely ever as lawyers or editors or stockbrokers; to keep them out of the military and the police force; or even to deny them the vote. None of these things, in their day, struck the average person as biased. But life changes -- and with it, so does language.

Brad Bolender, of Iowa City, Iowa, writes: “It seems that the words ‘proved’ and ‘proven’ are both correct in certain contexts. Can you tell me when to use each of them?”

Dear Brad: You bet. When the word comes before a noun, use “proven”: “a proven formula.” Also use “proven” in the legal phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” Anywhere else where you’re not sure which to use, use “proved.” “We were proved right.” “Has he proved his point?” In contexts like these, “proved” is traditional. People may object if you use “proven” instead, but nobody should find fault with “proved.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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