Feminism 101: The Grammar and Rhetoric of “Not All Men”

I find this fantastic for the fact that I am both an English Major and a Feminist. I would encourage everyone to read this article, I really found it quite interesting and able to say what thoughts I haven’t been able to verbalize. (Note: It recently came to my attention that the link attached previously is no longer working and the post has been moved. To make sure I never again lose this beautiful piece of writing I am going to put the whole post below. The link should be updated now. 11/6/2016)

Feminism 101: The Grammar and Rhetoric of “Not All Men.” 

Derailing tactics abound. Using “not all men” is a cheap, and ultimately sexist, strategy. One of the most common experiences women have online is encountering “not all men” men – those who pop up any time a woman discusses an experience of sexism to remind her, with varying levels of ire, that “not all men” engage in the behavior she’s describing. Since Shafiqah Hudson’s iconic tweet about the “not all men” phenomenon in 2013, various articles and posts have been written about the issue. And yet it persists. Not because any of those articles failed (by that standard, this one certainly will too), but because the rhetorical strategy behind “not all men” is simply too useful for men to give up.

A Short Grammar Lesson

Anyone who has talked to me in depth about grammar – and the number of people that applies to might actually surprise you – knows that I am firmly in the descriptivist camp. When it comes to theorizing about grammar, two of the biggest theoretical frameworks are called prescriptivism and descriptivism.

 Prescriptivism is a theory that assumes there is a “right” way to use language and grammar, and that dialects, vernacular, slang, and other forms of language use that deviate from the chosen “right” rules and structures are therefore “wrong,” lesser, and of lower aesthetic value. Prescriptivism is where jokes about the grammar police come from.

Descriptivism, on the other hand, is a theoretical mindset that focuses on describing how language is actually used in practice by communities of speakers and writers. It applies no value judgment to the forms of speech that are used, but seeks to understand the internal rules that speakers develop, which govern language use and grammatical structures, and which often change.

While these two theoretical mindsets often inform and affect one another, simply described, prescriptivism talks about how language should be, and descriptivism talks about how it is.

I offer this short lesson in grammar to contextualize my discussion of the grammar of “not all men” men, because their approach often takes on a prescriptivist flair. Rather than accepting how language is used by people to discuss common problems, they enter a discussion to tell us how women should discuss them.

The Grammar of “Not All Men”

The most surefire way to draw in a “not all men” man is to simply use the word “men” in a discussion of sexism. As many people have noted, men don’t typically rush into conversations where men are being praised to remind the speaker that “not all men” are deserving of such positive commentary. To further understand the grammar of “not all men,” I’ll use a couple of examples of my own tweets.

In the first, regarding responses to an article about a boy who assaulted a girl for rejecting his street harassment I said, “‘Polarizing’ the internet or demonstrating which men think they’re entitled to commit violence when women say no?” Now, any casual reader of this tweet should be able to follow the simple sentence construction – “which men think X” refers to the subset of all men who do anything. The sentence has already demarcated a specific group of men for discussion. However, within hours of posting the tweet, a man popped into my mentions to say, “You missed a ‘some’ in there somewhere…” “Why don’t you say some men, instead?” is a common response to hearing a woman talk about an issue experienced at the hands of men.

When I pointed out that the sentence was already qualified and that tossing in a “some” (making it “‘Polarizing the internet or demonstrating which some men think they’re entitled to commit violence when women say no?”) would be incorrect and nonsensical even with the most lenient descriptivist mindset, the response was, “Fuck you for generalizing.”

The grammar of “not all men” insists that any use of the word “men” is inherently referring to “all men.” Regardless of the specific qualifiers used, an accusation of generalizing will almost certainly follow in the wake of a “not all men” man’s arrival. The insistence that women say “some men” is part of the rhetorical strategy, which will be discussed in the next section. However, it is also important to note that women can be discussing a singular, individual man and still somehow receive a “not all men” comment.

Using another example from my own tweets, I was discussing an Idaho teen who threatened to kill his female classmates for not sending him nude photographs. During the discussion of entitlement, I mentioned that “If a man says the right words and performs the right actions, he expects to be rewarded with a compliant female prize.” And, within moments, someone tweeted, “Lol but not all males are like this stop generalizing pls.” The original tweet used the words “a man,” and yet a “not all men” man still felt the need to remind me that “not all men” engaged in the behavior being described. No amount of “some” will ever be enough to stave them off. I searched for a qualifier that would disarm the “not all men” men, up to and including focusing on the behavior of a single individual man, but after years of trying, realized that such a qualifier does not exist.

The reason it does not exist is that the grammar of “not all men” insists the use of the word in the plural can only and ever be interpreted as an unfair generalization or a universal accusation aimed at every man. Such insistence is far from accidental, and this is a standard rarely applied to the use of any other plural word (with the obvious exception of other privileged groups that get the “not all” treatment). Somehow, when it comes to discussing sexism, many refuse to accept the fact that “men” is an appropriate word to use if more than one man has ever engaged in the behavior described. And this is where the rhetoric of “not all men” comes into play.

The Rhetoric of “Not All Men”

It is important to understand that “not all men” men are not merely the product of failed grammar lessons. Their reading of any use of the word “men” as implicitly incriminating “all men” is a deliberate rhetorical strategy employed for the purposes of disrupting a conversation and attempting to undermine an observation. The strategy is an attempt to stop women from making change or having productive discussions by keeping the speaker mired in semantic arguments about her word choice.

The disruption of “not all men” is obvious. By moving the discussion from the men who have engaged in the harmful or violent behavior to those who haven’t, the “not all men” man positions himself as one of the good ones and demands recognition. Whether or not a woman accedes to his demand for acknowledgment, a conversational spiral often begins. “Well, if not all men do it, is it really sexism? What about the men who don’t do it? How do you really know it was sexism? Isn’t that an unfair generalization?”

At that point, the strategy has moved from deliberately misunderstanding grammar to deliberately misunderstanding the entire concept of sexism. The goal is to move the conversation away from the problem and towards exceptions and loopholes that are attempts at a gotcha, assuming that if such an exception can be found, it necessarily disproves the original point. While sexism refers to the structures and systems that generate injustices based on gender and implicates men as a class for benefiting from those structures, the existence of sexism is not disproved by finding an individual man who did not engage in a specific example of it.

The insistence that women use “some men” instead of “men” as a plural word is not as simple as a semantic or grammatical quibble, however. It too is a deliberate rhetorical choice. Use of the word “some” provides readers with an opportunity to immediately disconnect from the criticism that’s being made. Seeing the word “some” tells men that they don’t need to consider the problem that’s being described or how it might relate to their own behavior or the behavior of men they know. “Some” creates a distance that, in terms of the feminist discourse occurring, is actually counter-productive. For “not all men” men, it is essential to avoid the feeling that they are somehow being attacked.


When discussing sexism, I often remind men that if the shoe I’m describing doesn’t fit, they shouldn’t put it on – that is, they shouldn’t feel the need to get defensive if what I’m saying doesn’t apply to them. However, I also refuse to use the word “some” because, while “not all men” engage in the sexist practice I might be describing, all men do, to varying degrees, benefit from the existence of sexist structures and systems.

It is important for men to be confronted with the reality of sexism for women, and to understand the role sexism plays in women’s lives. “Not all men” is fundamentally a cry of men’s discomfort when having to acknowledge that women experience painful and even fatal things as a result of sexism. “Not all men” is their attempt to distance themselves from acknowledging that they have any role in a system where such things occur, because they themselves do not engage in a specific behavior.

However, that same cry of discomfort is a demand that women cease discussing problems and focus on men’s feelings instead, which is a fundamentally sexist and privileged demand. Feeling entitled to place their own desire to be made comfortable over women’s need to address problems of inequity and injustice is only possible in a system that says women’s lives are less important than men’s feelings. Every time a “not all men” man appears, he undermines his own claim to goodness by centering his desires over women’s existence and refusing to acknowledge the problem at hand.

“Not all men” men are amusing in their consistency, and yet their consistency is an indication of the privilege they are able to wield. The attempt to be made exempt from the discussion merely implicates them further, and often suggests that they are in fact the type of men who were being described in the first place.

Source: Bailey Poland

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