Tuesday, March 26, 2013


As an unreconstructed pedant I sometimes get embroiled in matters of grammar and literary style. And it can happen on-line, with strangers. Take, for example, a recent discussion about the word ladies. Which of course got tangled in a to-and-fro about the f-word: feminism.

Few still grimly insist that we always refer to female persons as women, or the horrible wimmin. Yes, language and its uses change over time and no, I'm not a dinosaur, trying to keep language intact and archaic. Try reading Chaucer or even Shakespeare to see where that would lead us. I'm just glad that we now seem to be accepting the word ladies again – surely a sign that we have grown out of the dummy-spitting era of the sixties and seventies.

There are no right or wrong words, only appropriate or inappropriate words. And it depends a lot on context. Someone talking to a room full of women would probably call them ladies if addressing them formally, as in "Good morning ladies." Later she might ask "all the women who work full time" to raise their hands. If it was time for a break she could lighten the tone and say, "right girls, coffee's ready!" Same session, same speaker, different context.

The terms lady and gentleman were once used, even officially, to indicate social status. Not so now. My mother used to say, with raised eyebrows, "ladies don't!" It was shorthand for don't do that, it's bad manners and not ladylike. Ladies and gentlemen behave in acceptable ways – acceptable, that is, for the times and circumstances. To describe them as such is to bestow a particular kind of compliment, one that acknowledges style, dignity and good manners: they don't eat peas off a knife, they stay upright when plastered, and wouldn't dream of dancing on tables at a golden wedding party. Women brawling outside a pub at two in the morning are not ladies.

We know what people mean when they say that someone is no gentleman. He is a man who barges through the door instead of holding it open, or watches his partner struggle with the heavy shopping. A tramp can be a gentleman, a lord can be a cad and therefore not a gentleman. A man wanted by the police cannot be described on television as a gentleman if he is violent and should not be approached.

We pedants are an endangered species. Soon no one will be left to care about the proper use of language and grammar. We will be carted off to our graves still squawking about apostrophes and brandishing our red pencils. In the meantime, and for the record, it's ladies and gentlemen, men and women, guys and gals, blokes and sheilas. But not ladies and men, ladie's and guy's, gentlemen and sheilas.

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