Saturday, October 22, 2005

Nonsexist Language: The Pronoun Problem

The problem is English's third-person-singular personal pronouns: there's no gender-neutral one, except it.
  • In the Nominative Case (when we use them as subjects), they are he, she, and it.
  • In the Objective Case (when we use them as the objects of verbs), they are him, her, and its.
  • In the Possessive Case, they are his, her(s), and its.
Other languages, like French, have this problem too. But in them nouns (i.e., the names of persons, places, and things) still have gender, too (inherited from Latin). So, gender hasn't such strong sexual connotations in these other languages as it does in English, where only pronouns referring to a human or animal still have gender. Because of these sexual connotations, the word gender, which originally meant "genus," has come to mean "sex."

You can avoid this sexual designation for an animal or infant by using "it." But you can't refer to a person as "it." We naturally refer to a newborn infant as "it" till it develops a personality. Parents are the first to see a personality in the baby. Similarly, we may refer to a stray dog as "it," but we never refer to our pet dog as "it."

So, for example, how do we talk about a hypothetical dog owner? We can say The owner must be ready to battle for dominance before he or she brings home a rescued Cairn Terrier. Fine, but if you've tried the "he or she" solution, you know what's wrong with it: you soon have a mess of he-or-she's, him-or-her's, his-or-hers's, and himself-or-herself's.

Eighteenth-century grammarians decided to just redefine he and its derivatives to mean "he or she." But nobody has the power to change what he, him, and his mean to the English-speaking people of the world. Words mean what we all use them to mean in everyday speech, and nobody can control that. So teachers defining them as "genderless" or "generic" is an exercise in futility. And putting a disclaimer in the front of your book, telling readers you mean them "genderlessly" or "generically" is an exercise in futility.

Therefore, if you write a sentence about the typical day of the average major league baseball player, say He takes batting practice before lunch. If you write a sentence about the duties of the average Girl Scout, say She sells cookies every spring. But if you write a sentence about how the average medical doctor works, don't say He runs tests before diagnosing.

Try —

  • They run tests before diagnosing.
  • The doctor runs tests before diagnosing.
  • Doctors run tests before diagnosing.
  • You have tests run before the diagnosis.
  • Tests are run before the diagnosis is made.
  • She or he runs tests before diagnosing.
From these examples we can see that, to avoid he, your options are:

  • Switch to the plural.
  • Substitute a noun for "he."
  • Switch to the second person (using you).
  • Write in the passive voice.
  • Substitute "he or she" for "he."
Prefer the first three methods, because the passive voice and he-or-she methods have drawbacks. Switching to the plural is the most versatile method, but you often must switch the surrounding sentences to the plural as well.

In the last example above, notice that I wrote "she or he" instead of "he or she." Using these expressions interchangeably is good, because it avoids the subliminal suggestion in always putting he first. But it has a drawback: we're so used to reading he or she that she or he seems unidiomatic and calls attention to the writing. But only the first time and only for the second it takes to interpret, so don't consider this little speed-bump a distraction.

Either way, the he-or-she method has limited use, because it can quickly lead to writing littered with he-or-she's, as in monstrosities like this —

He or she can't fulfill the second part of his or her mission if he or she doesn't see the opposing net player making his or her move on the ball.

He (a subject pronoun) is easier to avoid than him (an object pronoun), and both are easier to avoid than his (a possessive pronoun). But that's a subject for a future post.

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