1. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles

    He or she. Him or her. S/he. They. Arrgh.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by minstrel, May 5, 2013.

    This has probably been discussed before; if so, the thread is old and buried and new people might want to weigh in.

    The English language is blatantly sexist. Masculine pronouns are used for everybody. This is, of course, unfair, but what can we reasonably do about it?

    "He or she" sometimes works, but if used to many times in a paragraph, it can sound ridiculous. And it's even more ridiculous in the "him or her" form - I just posted in another thread a sentence ending in "him or her," and every fiber of my being hated doing that because aesthetically, it's awful. Sometimes writers try to get around these problems by using artificial constructs like s/he, which is unpronounceable and therefore unacceptable. I've seen work by writers who use the feminine pronouns to mean everybody, just to redress the balance (I guess), but that's equally unfair. Sometimes I see writers alternate between he and she, and that doesn't work because sometimes you can't figure out who they're talking about.

    There is always the gender-neutral pronoun "it," but I refuse to use it to refer to a human being. It even bugs me when I see British writers (it's mostly the British who do this) use "it" to refer to a baby or a small child.

    I know there's no optimum solution to this problem. Either we're politically incorrect or we're aesthetically incorrect. Arrgh.

    Are you offended if I use masculine pronouns for everybody? Hundreds of years of English prose is written that way. If you are offended, what can I, and other writers, do about it? It's a problem with the language, not with me.
     
  2. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,783
    Likes Received:
    7,298
    Location:
    Scotland
    I'm female, and no, in general, I am not offended if the default is 'he' rather than 'she' - provided it makes sense in context. I don't mind if it's 'she' either, but I don't like shifting back and forth, because, like you said, it can become confusing AND it draws undue attention to itself.

    Maybe we should think up a new genderless pronoun that means 'a human being.' Any ideas?
     
  3. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I'd rather be politically incorrect. I can't stand aesthetic incorrectness.

    No. But then again, I'm a guy.

    Nothing. Like you said, prose has been written this way for a long time. I don't like the idea of changing something that doesn't need to be changed (IMO).

    This is actually the first time I've heard someone bring this issue up. So I'm guessing most readers don't notice it or don't care.
     
  4. squishytheduck
    Offline

    squishytheduck Senior Member

    Joined:
    Mar 6, 2013
    Messages:
    187
    Likes Received:
    11
    Location:
    Boston, MA
    I'm not offended by he = everybody. I've seen authors use one sex consistently in the same essay, but then use the other sex in another essay, and that way they can sort of balance. Sometimes I speak of everybody in the plural, like instead of saying "if person does x, then he is y" I'll just say "if people do x, then they are y". You could also address the audience in the second person. I don't if that is applicable for you though. Good luck!
     
  5. Garball
    Offline

    Garball Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand. Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Apr 24, 2013
    Messages:
    2,846
    Likes Received:
    1,331
    Location:
    S'port, LA
    Stephen king covers this in his book "On Writing" and alludes to "The Elements of Style". Both sources say get over it. If it really bothers you, restructure sentences in order to utilize gender neutral pronouns like your and their.
     
  6. Mckk
    Offline

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2010
    Messages:
    4,749
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    I've taken to using "she" but it's still a bit of a conscious effort to do so - I chose "she" mainly because it changes the way one interprets the text sometimes, and it is one step towards balancing the gender inequality I feel. For example, I read in my friend's blog something like this: "and she was a criminal" - and I immediately bristled and thought, "Hey why should it necessarily be a woman?" and then I realised the "she" is generic, to mean "somebody".

    And it made me realise just how sexist English still us - if my friend had used "he" I wouldn't have thought "Why should it be a man?"

    I've seen a site use "xe" to refer to both genders - I thought that was an all right compromise.

    But unless we invent a new word, there's really no good solution to this.

    Oh I've also seen, in non-fiction books, authors alternating between using "he" and "she" between chapters. Otherwise you could go for the good old "disclaimer" :D
     
  7. GingerCoffee
    Offline

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2013
    Messages:
    17,604
    Likes Received:
    5,877
    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    I'm female, not offended but I see the value to my gender of encouraging gender neutral language. We are writers. Language is our trade. We have the opportunity to be leaders in this effort.

    At the moment, that would be s/he and his/hers.



    I find people who say, "get over it", often have a shortsighted view of the problem.

    It's not about a single sentence, or word, and I dislike using "they" as a singular pronoun more than I am bothered using s/he. But we don't have true gender equality in society and the role language plays in that is undeniable. So I make an effort in my own words, and I don't lose sleep over the pace of progress when someone else doesn't.
     
  8. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Once again, how do you pronounce it? Zhe? (Hell, how do you pronounce zhe?)

    I get concerned about this, because if we do a complete overhaul of the language very quickly, then all earlier prose suddenly looks sexist when it isn't meant to be. Even worse, there will be cases in which earlier prose will be misinterpreted. In any case, there will be a couple of confused generations of kids.
     
  9. chicagoliz
    Offline

    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 30, 2012
    Messages:
    3,295
    Likes Received:
    815
    Location:
    Pennsylvania
    Yes, it is a tough issue, and you have to determine which is more important -- the agreement of the gender or the agreement of the singular/plural words. I often just resort to "he" and I am not offended when I see others do it. I sometimes try to mix it up -- like some authors do, in varying chapters, as was mentioned above. It just gets too cumbersome both to read and to write when you have to write his/her and (s)he all the time. I know that some other languages don't have this issue, and I wish we didn't either. But given that it exists, I don't think it is going to change anytime soon. And we're writing right now.
     
  10. Eric242
    Offline

    Eric242 Member

    Joined:
    Feb 26, 2013
    Messages:
    69
    Likes Received:
    3
    Location:
    Canada
    This is something I have never thought about at all. I never thought of 'he' and 'she' as generic. I figured 'he' referred to a man, and 'she' referred to a woman. When I write and am referring to a woman I put 'she', when I refer to a man I put 'he'. This is what I see in writing too. I don't think I've read a novel where everything was just 'he' or 'she'. In what context do you see an author use only 'he'?

    I guess the only time I see it generic is when the subject is actually unknown, and I've always seen it as 'he'.
     
  11. chicagoliz
    Offline

    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 30, 2012
    Messages:
    3,295
    Likes Received:
    815
    Location:
    Pennsylvania
    It can come up at almost any time. I encounter it frequently when posting here.

    What's a writer to do? Whatever he/she thinks is best or conveys what he/she wants to convey about him/herself.
     
  12. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    How would you write something like this:

    If a person is in trouble, he should call the police.
     
  13. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,963
    Likes Received:
    5,487
    Yes, there is no single good solution, and, yes, I will tend to be offended if a piece uses masculine pronouns with apparently no effort made to avoid it. Not throw-the-book-against-the-wall, or boycott-that-textbook offended, but, yeah, offended. That doesn't mean that I expect the writer to twist sentences into pretzels to avoid masculine pronouns, but there's quite often a perfectly graceful alternative.

    For example, the phrase above started as:

    ...expect the writer to twist his sentences into pretzels...

    and I giggled and was going to leave it there as an example of a sentence that had no graceful alternative, when I realized that, well, of course it has one. I could pluralize:

    ...expect writers to twist their sentences into pretzels...

    but then I realized that I didn't even need the "his" and went to the final solution of

    ...expect writers to twist sentences into pretzels...

    In casual writing, I will sometimes use the "singular their" when I can't find another way out:

    ...expect the writer to twist their sentences into pretzels...

    But I dislike it. I'm just a little too much of a prescriptivist to be happy with that solution.

    I hope it was OK to go back and find the sentence you were referring to. I'm assuming that it was:

    There isn't, so each writer uses methods that work best for him or her.

    One possible solution is pluralizing:

    There isn't, so writers use the methods that work best for them.

    Another is "one", which always makes me feel vaguely old-fashioned:

    There isn't--part of writing is using the methods that work best for one's own writing voice and style.

    There's the singular plural, which, again, I dislike:

    There isn't, so each writer uses methods that work best for them.

    I'm not altogether happy with any of these, though I'd probably end up using the "one" option.

    Edited to respond to a later example:



    When people are in trouble, they should call the police.

    When one is in trouble, one should call the police.

    If you encounter any trouble, call the police.

    In dangerous or criminal situations, your first call should be to the police.


    Which is not to minimize the issue. Often it can be hard to keep exactly the same impact and nuance that you wanted, when you rephrase like this.
     
  14. jeepea
    Offline

    jeepea Member

    Joined:
    Mar 18, 2013
    Messages:
    98
    Likes Received:
    7
    Location:
    Colorado
    I've seen this come up in book reviews on Amazon where some readers think an author has a feminist agenda because the author uses 'she' instead of 'he'. So 'he' isn't necessarily that neutral; it's often expected and any variance can bring into question the author's motives.
     
  15. GingerCoffee
    Offline

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2013
    Messages:
    17,604
    Likes Received:
    5,877
    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    Unknown gender is the thing we are talking about.


    Which proves the point, doesn't it. If you use the arbitrary "he" it's fine, use "she" and you have an agenda. :rolleyes:

    This is why I take the extra fraction of a second to type out he/she.

    I think using the affirmative action, "she", is a reasonable alternative. The fact people notice, whether they label the author a feminist or not, is a positive, IMO.
     
  16. Anthelionryu
    Offline

    Anthelionryu Member

    Joined:
    Apr 19, 2013
    Messages:
    83
    Likes Received:
    2
    Location:
    Fort Worth, Texas
    I found this a long time ago at Merriam Webster online. The Awkward Case of "His or Her" It's a great commentary on exactly this.

    Personally I think political correctness makes the world worse, not better. It's supposed to be a show of tolerance but how? By being intolerant of people that are different than you? People have been raised in many different cultures observing many different ways. In one culture the way they address a person may be completely benign or even flattering. Yet, if that same person comes to America and acts the very same way he's labeled a sexist. How is he supposed to act? Two days in the country and he's supposed to know what you expect of him? People don't even need to be from different countries for this to occur. A person raised in the South is likely to encounter the same treatment in the North. We're different. A tolerant people would accept that.

    As for me; I write it the way it sounds best to me. I never intend to offend when I write or at any other time. I treat all people with the utmost respect unless I've been given a reason not to. In that context, if someone takes offense to something I've written or said when no offense was intended then the problem lies with them, not me.

    All that said; there are times when a gender neutral word would be a nice weapon in the arsenal. English is a vibrant and changing language. Surely someone can come up with one that people will use.
     
  17. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    I generally go with either "one" or "they/their", occasionally resorting to "s/he". I don't feel comfortable using "he" as a universal, but not because I see it as diminishing females - I'm just referring to both. But seeing "he" used doesn't bother me, let alone offend me.
     
  18. TerraIncognita
    Offline

    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

    Joined:
    May 28, 2010
    Messages:
    1,339
    Likes Received:
    40
    Location:
    Texas
    An alternative gender neutral would be nice but we do not live in a perfect world with a perfect language. ;)

    Personally, I don't find it offensive. It's more of a "it would be nice if..." sort of thing. I don't get bent out of shape about it. It's like saying mankind. To me I just take that to mean all people regardless of age (speaking about boys) or gender. So I suppose the context is what makes it alright for me. I get that there aren't good alternatives to it and that's just how it is and I accept that because it's not that huge of deal. It's not someone trying to offend me. It's just the lovely difficulties of the English language. :rolleyes:

    I don't understand why people would get so bent out of shape about it. Male pronouns are much more predominant so to me it's just someone wanting to change things up a bit. I also find the phrase feminist agenda a bit ridiculous. It makes it sound like women are bent on world domination or something. :p
     
  19. GingerCoffee
    Offline

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2013
    Messages:
    17,604
    Likes Received:
    5,877
    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    Shhhhh, not everyone knows. :)
     
  20. rhduke
    Offline

    rhduke Contributing Member Reviewer

    Joined:
    Mar 15, 2013
    Messages:
    733
    Likes Received:
    158
    Location:
    Canada
    I use "one" as well as I feel the same way about the he/she thing.
     
  21. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I think so many people incorrectly use "they" that it will one day become accepted usage.

    Perhaps the writer's gender matters as well. Perhaps female writers are more likely to use "she" than male writers.
     
  22. captain kate
    Offline

    captain kate Active Member

    Joined:
    May 4, 2008
    Messages:
    876
    Likes Received:
    28
    Location:
    Cruising through space.
    Very easy....

    If a male character: If a person is in trouble, he should call the police.

    If a female: If a person is in trouble, she should call the police.

    Any serious writer can adjust his/her writing to the character they're writing. A female lead will change statements like the above into what I wrote. It comes from the POV more so than the narrative. Also, and this is important, it fits with the MC. Now, the converse changes. If your MC, or POV character is male, then the pronouns change.

    It's really simple but it appears political correctness is rearing it's ugly head again. Too bad not enough people truly know where that word comes from-and not what wiki, teachers or professors claim. I'm betting if many did, then they'd think about it differently. And I am NOT going to answer that comment on the main board either.
     
  23. 123456789
    Offline

    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    6,336
    Likes Received:
    3,084
    Yeah, "it."
     
  24. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Not easy. I'm talking about the general person - what if I don't know the gender of the person I'm talking about? See your own next sentence!

    Exactly. You didn't know the gender of the writer you're talking about, so you resorted to "his/her". That's ugly, clumsy, hard to read aloud with a straight face, etc. And then you compounded the problem by using "they're". Now we have a plural in a vain attempt to remove gender from the sentence.

    Aargh.

    Now do you see why I'm saying aargh? I'm saying it's frustrating trying to write in English without offending people with gender-specific pronouns!
     
  25. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    "It" is a brick or a turd. "It" is a constellation or a smoke ring or a temperature that would freeze carbon dioxide into dry ice. "It" is a political philosophy or an art movement or a subgenre of Japanese anime. "It" is an algorithm or a language or a migraine headache. "It" is an engineering principle or a meteorological phenomenon. "It" is a baseball score or a time-honored beer-brewing process.

    "It" is not a person.
     

Share This Page