Around the 1960s and 70s, feminists undertook a project of feminist language reform, uncovering and correcting gendered language. Among the problems they tackled was the generic use of “he”.
Insisting that women might sometimes be the referents of generic pronouns, feminists met with the resistance of a stubborn vanguard of patriarchal language puritans, who had in their defense a long-established linguistic tradition of privileging the male perspective. But feminists won the day, eventually convincing writers not to exclude half the population from their intended readership. The only question now was how to write sentences, since everyone had learned to phrase sentences with the generic “he”.
There were four broad solutions to this problem.
- Alternate between “he” and “she”. This recognizes that it is exclusionary to use the masculine pronoun and, in an egalitarian move, seeks to apportion that exclusion in equal measure to men and women, distributed more or less arbitrarily throughout their work. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun alternation.
- Replace “he” with the compound phrase “he or she”. This replaces the exclusionary masculine pronoun with a clunky, gender-ambiguous reference composed of two gendered pronouns. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun compounding.
- Use the singular “they”. This recognizes that the non-gendered “they” is inclusive. It also speeds up comprehension time, relative to the generic “he”. However, it has the downside of being grating to people who are uncomfortable using “they” in the singular. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun neutrality.
- Reword sentences so they don’t use a generic “he”. This leads to stronger sentences in general, but requires skill to consistently execute, and careful attention paid to phrasing. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun nullification.
Ever since feminists convinced the world that women deserve equal treatment with respect to pronoun reference, there has been disagreement about how to handle that equal treatment.
Each strategy has its downsides. Compounding -“he or she”- is cumbersome and awkward. Alternating is distracting and arbitrary. Neutrality -the singular “they”- can be grating to people who aren’t yet used to it. And the null strategy -avoiding generic pronoun use- requires attention paid to phrasing, making it harder for the speaker or writer.
Even today, all these different strategies are used by different speakers. The phrase “he or she” spiked in popularity throughout the 70s, peaking around 1980, just as we would expect from the feminist language reform movement. Gender pronoun compounding has been more-or-less consistent since then.
It shouldn’t be.
Not only is the phrase “he or she” clunky and awkward, it’s exclusionary, in precisely the same way that usage of the masculine “he” is. So is gender pronoun alternation. These strategies both exclude gender non-binary individuals. They both presume gender binarity.
Ironically, the compounding and alternating strategies, though a response to egalitarian concerns, are arguably less progressive than the antiquated “he” usage, since, while the older usage at least has the (admittedly flimsy) pretense of using “he” as a neutral pronoun, the “he or she” strategies posture as inclusive, and thereby succeed in being that much more exclusionary to gender non-binary people.
(And why “he or she” rather than “she or he”?)
We might fix either strategy by including “they” among the terms that are compounded or alternating. But once you open the door for “he or she or they” you recognize the validity of the singular “they”, so you might as well just use that. Ditto for alternating.
The only sensible strategies are gender neutrality and gender nullification. No more of this arbitrarily alternating between “he” and “she”, and no more of the clunky and exclusionary “he or she” compounds. Even without considering the exclusionary effects of these strategies, they were the worst of the four, anyways. Gender neutrality and gender nullification lead to cleaner, more elegant sentences.
It might be helpful to demonstrate how to execute gender pronoun nullification. Virginia Tufte, in Syntax as Style (which you should consider buying), provides this example of generic pronoun use (before fixing it):
When a small child encounters an angry dog, she instinctively knows that bared fangs signal great danger even without any previous learning. – Cooper and Reiman, “About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design”
Tufte fixes the sentence this way:
A small child encountering an angry dog instinctively knows, even without any previous learning, that bared fangs signal great danger.
Tufte’s version handles the gendered pronoun issue better by phrasing to avoid generic pronoun usage. This makes it genuinely inclusive. Even without considering the gender issue, Tufte’s version is a better sentence -smoother to read and more economical, two words shorter than the original.
But writing this way requires deliberate attention paid to phrasing. It’s worth it, I think, since you end up with better sentences. But it makes the writer’s job slightly more difficult. For those writers who aren’t up to the task, the gender neutral “they” is also an option.
I would like to see the usage of “he or she” dropping. Besides being clunky and inelegant, it’s also exclusionary. It fails at achieving the only thing that it was meant to achieve. So if you see or hear someone using it, please kindly explain what’s wrong with it, or direct them to this article.
2 thoughts on “Gendered language and pronoun usage (ways to do it properly, and ways to do it wrong)”
Why can’t we just agree on a gender neutral singular pronoun and begin implementing it into the education system nation-wide? In time, that would fix all of this and save writers the trouble of having to jump through all of these hoops (after which we still end up failing at complete inclusivity anyway).
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For non-fiction writing, as in the example provided, rewording to eliminate the pronouns is actually better writing. It’s tighter and more succinct. However, it will take a generation or two of retraining to undue generations of pronoun-specific writing.
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