Thursday, August 31, 2006

Eliminating the object pronoun "him"

In the last example of the previous post, 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).

To avoid him, your options are:
  • Switch to the plural.
  • Substitute a noun for "him."
  • Reword the sentence to eliminate the need for "him."
  • Substitute "him or her" for "him."
Here are examples of all but the last method.

Eliminating the Object Pronoun "Him"

Original: The best way to pressure a person is to confront him with choices.

Revised: The best way to pressure people is to confront them with choices.

Original: By demanding a down-the-line return, you make him hit the very return he usually tries to not hit.

Revised: By demanding a down-the-line return, you make receivers hit the very return they usually try to not hit.

Original: If your partner often does a particular thing you don't like, simply tell him how it makes you feel.

Revised: If your partner often does a particular thing you don't like, simply say how it makes you feel.

Labels: ,


Sunday, August 27, 2006

Avoiding Sexist Language

The problem is English's third-person-singular personal pronouns: there's no gender-neutral one, except it.

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.

Labels: ,


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Oh, those darned third-person singular pronouns!

This turns into an even hotter topic than whether American English is legitimate or not. So, let me start off this series on how to avoid gender-specific language with the justification for avoiding it.

The bottom line is that you must use gender-neutral language to get published. Nonetheless, a decent respect for the opinions of all requires more of a reason than expediency.

So, let me mention at the top that language isn't a moral issue. It belongs to no one, let alone the monarch of the United Kingdom.

It isn't private property: it's community property. It is the property of all who speak it. The world over. THEY make the rules and change them at will. Not grammar teachers and pedants. Okay?

Writing is a service industry. So, to be profitable, it must please the customer.

Notice that native speakers of English use nonsexist language when speaking in mixed company. In fact, because of this habit, they usually do likewise whenever appropriate, even when speaking to all males.

This usage dates back to the 13th century. We see it in Shakespeare's line:

God grant everyone their heart's desire.

Why? Because it's instinctive to use the gender-neutral their instead of his. Just listen to yourself: you'll find that you use it all the time.

Why? Because it's simple courtesy to the half of your audience that is female. By using this inclusive language, you treat them like they are there. They won't like it if you don't. So, don't expect them to pay for a slight to their very existence.

And the argument that his means "his or her" doesn't hold water. Since a language is the property of its whole native-speaking community, THEY define the meaning of words, not professors of English. Tests prove that masculine pronouns and man-words mean "male" to native speakers of English.

Indeed, there was a time when they didn't. In the Dark Ages a native speaker of English would say that a certain queen was a "a wonderful man." Man meant "human" back then. But no native speaker of English would say that today, because man now means "adult male." Whether grammarians like it or not.

And the problem of meaning is far worse in English than in languages like French, in which all nouns still have gender. In English, only sexual beings are refered to with gender. So, in English, the word gender has stopped meaning "kind" and has come to mean "sex."

Since native speakers of English use gender-neutral language when they talk, why should they write according to different rules?

In my next few posts, I'll show how it's done. It may seem hard at first, but that's just due to your HABITS in writing. Once you get used to it, writing in gender-neutral language becomes second nature.

Labels: ,


Monday, August 07, 2006

Style Tip: Put Statements in Positive Form

In his Elements of Style, William Strunk wrote, "Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion."

For example:

Instead of John was not very often on time, write John usually came late.

Instead of Lisa did not think that was a very nice thing to say, write Lisa thought that a mean thing to say.

Not is a weak word. Your readers want to know what is.

Certain uses of the negative help though. Placing a negative in opposition to a positive makes a stronger, clearer statement.

Here is an example: Your tone should be friendly and engaging, not distant or intimate.

And yet another...

Ask not what your country can do for
you -- ask what you can do for your country.



Wednesday, August 02, 2006


When a copyeditor edits a new author's work, she checks for many things, but most of her edits flag multiple instances of the same few stylistic errors. The result can take the wind out of your sails, because you get your work back with something flagged in every other sentence.

It isn't that bad though: it's just that you weren't taught to write the way you must write for publication. You have no way of knowing the tricks of the trade, so you keep making the same few mistakes. Unfortunately, these are stylistic errors that you must recast the sentence to fix. Then, after you revise your edited work, you need a second copyedit to check for other things and polish the piece.

So, whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, you can slash your copyediting costs by learning and using a few basic principles of good writing style. Then you really get your money's worth out of an editor. You don't need her level of professional expertise just to tell you to write in the active voice… one hundred times at $30-$55 dollars an hour. That's overkill, like paying an M.D. to show you how to take your temperature.

Moreover, then your editor can dig deeper and do the things you really need an editor for. The result is a finely crafted piece of work.