A Few Words From Ursula K Le Guin

In an interview with David Naimon at VQR, Le Guin said a lot of great things. Here's one of them, which doesn't need anything added from me.


In your book on writing, Steering the Craft, you say that morality and language are linked, but that morality and correctness are not the same thing. Yet we often confuse them in the realm of grammar.

The “grammar bullies”—you read them in places like the New York Times—and they tell you what is correct: You must never use “hopefully.” “Hopefully, we will be going there on Tuesday.” That is incorrect and wrong and you are basically an ignorant pig if you say it. This is judgmentalism. The game that is being played there is a game of social class. It has nothing to do with the morality of writing and speaking and thinking clearly, which Orwell, for instance, talked about so well. It’s just affirming that I am from a higher class than you are. The trouble is that people who aren’t taught grammar very well in school fall for these statements from these pundits, delivered with vast authority from above. I’m fighting that. A very interesting case in point is using “they” as a singular. This offends the grammar bullies endlessly; it is wrong, wrong, wrong! Well, it was right until the eighteenth century, when they invented the rule that “he” includes “she.” It didn’t exist in English before then; Shakespeare used “they” instead of “he or she”—we all do, we always have done, in speaking, in colloquial English. It took the women’s movement to bring it back to English literature. And it is important. Because it’s a crossroads between correctness bullying and the moral use of language. If “he” includes “she” but “she” doesn’t include “he,” a big statement is being made, with huge social and moral implications. But we don’t have to use “he” that way—we’ve got “they.” Why not use it?