Sexist Writing - A Quagmire
When Amber, Igor, and Miss Hamrick developed our language, they dreamed up another rule:
Pronouns must agree with the gender of the nouns they replace or refer to.
A pronoun referring to a woman or girl must be the feminine pronoun, and a pronoun referring to a man or boy must be the masculine pronoun.
Of course, there’s no problem when you know the sex of the person being referred to. But what about referring to a type of person? How could Igor refer to, say, a member of another tribe, who might be male or female? Igor faced a dilemma.
We know how he solved it. Igor is perhaps the quintessential male chauvinist pig in human history. After all, he appointed himself Chairman (that’s the way he’d say it) of the Grammar Committee. When he devised the language, he made certain that masculine pronouns were the superior forms of speech. Thus, if Igor referred to a type of person, say a generic member of another tribe, invariably he would refer to that member with a masculine pronoun, even if the member could just as easily have been a woman.
Thus, Igor would say:
When we meet a member of that other tribe, let’s give him a party.
He certainly would not make a grammatical mistake and use the plural pronoun them to refer to the singular word member.
But that’s what you do. That’s what everybody does. These days, most people would say:
When we meet a neighbor from that new development, let’s give them a party.
Why do we say that? Because we don’t want to be like Igor and just use he all the time. We want to avoid that cumbersome he-she, his-her, him-her or that tongue-twisting he or she, his or her, him or her, and so on. So we settle for:
When a policy holder comes to me for service, I want to make sure they get the personal attention they deserve. —State Farm Insurance TV Advertisement
Policy holder is singular. They is plural. Under traditional rules of grammar, the two don’t match.
Everybody makes this mistake.
Textbooks and institutions of higher learning take various approaches to this problem. In the olden days, books routinely used the masculine to refer to singular, generic antecedents:
In many cases a mere possessor of land may be treated as if he were the owner for the purpose of awarding a particular form of legal or equitable relief. Roger A. Cunningham, The Law of Property, p. 10 (1984).
Others took an inclusive approach and used both:
In a competency proceeding, a judge is asked to appoint a conservator to manage the property of a person who is no longer competent to manage it for him or herself. [This should probably read himself or herself. Or perhaps him‑ or herself.] Paul Berman & Michael Asimow, Reel Justice, p. 102 (1996).
Still others took the inclusive approach to ridiculous extremes. A colleague of mine served on the law review of a major law school. The editor-in-chief instructed him and all other editors to change manuscripts of submitted articles to remove any vestiges of sexism.
If a paragraph has a singular, generic antecedent, use the masculine. Then in the next paragraph having a singular, generic antecedent, switch to the feminine. Then to the masculine. Then to the feminine.
This is a most unsatisfactory experience for the reader, I would imagine, despite the fairness achieved: She gets used to one pronoun, and then the writer switches on him.
In case you don’t think people really do that, learn from the experience of Erik Wensberg, editor of Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage. He quotes an example of this back-and-forth approach:
Likewise distracting is a writer who tells us how to be courteous to the blind: Speak when you enter a blind person’s room . . . . Only then take her hand if she offers it to you. Let her know if you are leaving . . . . When showing a blind person to a chair, place his hand on the back. He will seat himself . . . . When changing a blind person’s money, let her know what each bill is. Follett, p. 33.
Read the next topic for a proposed solution to the problem of sexist writing.
Previous: Antecedents - Number and Gender
Next: Sexism - Proposed Solution
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