Aha! Pronoun trouble!

6 April 2008

I am in favor of gender-neutral wording.

I have no grudge against those who assert that the English masculine pronoun is actually a neuter. In fact, people have got my back up by pretending that it was somehow proved to be a false neuter simply because some collectives of PC academics declared it to be such.

But the fact is that almost no one is always on-the-ball, and most people are never on the ball, and it's good to keep them from thinking that something is necessarily male or masculine simply because masculine pronouns are used.

My favorite resolution is one that I first observed in academic papers by economists; specifically, they would alternate the genders assigned to hypothetical subjects. (The prevailing practice seemed to be to start with a feminine.) This practice adds a few virtues to simple gender neutrality. First, the personal pronouns are familiar to the reader. Second, in many cases, two subjects subsequently are naturally distinguished by their genders, instead of by more complex constructions. Third, those readers who need to be awakened from sexist presumptions are often actively confronted with one gender where they were expecting the other.

(Naturally, some PC folk will leap on the first masculine or feminine that they spot, before discerning the pattern, and denounce the writing for being gendered. In some cases they do this in a sort of drive-by attack, and it's pure cost. In some cases, one can show the pattern to them and presumably put them on the road to being more thoughtful in general. In some cases, one does not so much try to get them on-the-ball as just throw the ball at them, in a game of verbal dodge-ball played to drive them from the court.)

Some years ago, various would-be reformers tried to push the idea of introducing a new pronoun — or something like a new pronoun — which (unlike it) would distinctly refer to singular things with personality but would be a neuter. The more clever ideas involved a sort of singularization of they, but all of the candidates that I saw were awkward — some indeed as if their creätors had wanted them to be so — and none really caught-on (though I'm sure that there's still some small organization or organizations trying to advance such constructs).

Another potential solution is to recast expressions in terms of one. Normally, I use one instead of the generic you. Like most people, I sometimes slip into using you not to refer to my audience, but to a generic person. Often this habit is innocuous, but one doesn't want to insult one's audience by seeming to make assertions about them which may indeed be true of oneself yet still offend them. Anyway, one can often serve nicely as referring to a hypothetical person of unspecified gender.

The Woman of Interest asked a question that I find interesting: Is this one a pronoun? As an alternative to the generic you, it plays a rôle otherwise assigned to a pronoun; and, like a pronoun, it has a reflexive form, oneself. Well, if it's a pronoun, then it's the only English pronoun with an apostrophe in its genitive, one's. My mnemonic, used to help people avoid using it's for the genitive its then fails.

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