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14.Gender-neutral language

While women tackle millennia-old prejudices against them, there is an increasing focus upon the way language still reflects those prejudices. Pronouns are one area where writers are having some difficulty coming to a consensus.

For a long time, and still persisting today, there has been the idea that the masuline pronouns, like he, his and him, are suitable to be used as gender-neutral references. But why?

Basically, they are the extension of the use of man and men to represent all of humanity, or at least those parts of it deemed worthy.

Such use has been prevalent among religious, political and academic circles for millennia. However, such circles have been conspicuous by their long-term exclusion of women, and so have been able to propagate such masculine-centric language because there has been no opposition within their ranks that may have taken objection to their use. It is easy to say the masculine usage is universal when only men count!

As women gradually began to be allowed into some of these institutions, they were in a precarious minority, and so were disinclined to buck the status quo over what would have been the least of their issues.

However, as reading became more popular among the general population, the heavy biases in language permeated into all written material. We have come to a point where women, and many men, rightly question whether the language needs to reflect what everyday people, as opposed to the loftly interpretations of religious and academic scholars, understand by them.

Is it valid to use maculine pronouns? ^

The first question is whether masculine pronouns are suitable as gender-neutral references.

We have become fairly used to seeing masculine pronouns used to generically refer to people in various occupations or activities, but does their use set up gender expectations in people hearing and reading them?

The answer to that question depends upon:

  1. a.The percentage of usage that is masculine-specific compared to generic.
  2. b.Whether people are aware of the difference enough at the time that they interpret each correctly.

What about those situations where the gender is unknown to one party in a conversation?

For example, if, not knowing what gender your doctor is, I asked When you asked your doctor about the pains in your abdomen, what did he say?, but she is actually female, would you:

  1. a.Be unaware of the use of the masculine pronoun.
  2. b.Automatically use my masculine pronoun in your answer.
  3. c.Automatically use the feminine pronoun in your answer.
  4. d.Notice the use of the masculine, but use the feminine pronoun.
  5. e.Correct me in my erroneous assumption.

Another example is if I said to you Look at that runner go. He's really moving! and you turned around to see a solitary female runner, would you accept that she was who I was talking about, or look around for a male runner?

A lot will probably depend upon which gender you are, and what conventions you are used to, but it does highlight the situations where we are using language that doesn't reflect the assumptions we are making.

If you are the type of person who would have been looking for the male runner, you would be more likely to visualise someone described as a doctor or engineer as male when you read about them being referenced by the supposedly neutral he.

Given that there is so much correctly applied use of the masculine pronouns, can we really expect that they can also do double-duty as gender-neutral forms as well? I say increasingly not, as less people are being trained in the conventions through the traditional institutions that perpetrated the supposedly gender-neutral usage.

The issue is important when using pronouns when the gender is unimportant or irrelevant, so as to not set up an unnecessary or misleading expectation or perspective. However, if the intent is to convey that the person being spoken about is actually male, then the masculine pronouns are entirely appropriate.

Identity ^

Persuance of gender-neutral language, like other identity-related issues, is often seen as of lesser importance than other issues affecting society, especially from those with conservative political views, but it goes to the heart of how prevalent thinking in society suppresses the aspirations of its members.

We are in a time where gender is no longer just a biological factor determined at birth, but an active psychological state of mind that we can choose, so we have become more aware of how we can be locked into thinking, attitudes and actions that are not what we really want for ourselves. It is all part of understanding who we are as individuals, and what part we can play in society.

People are claiming the language that they want to describe themselves, as evidenced by the plethora of new words added to the language as a result of user-generated content on social media sites. Language is no longer the preserve of nominated custodians, but has evolved into its own democratic forms of expression.

As writers, we can facilitate a less biased and prescriptive narrative, by eliminating irrelevent or misleading gender references.

Approaches ^

As writers became aware of the unnecessary biases in the traditional third-person pronouns, attempts have been made to move to more neutral usage.

The common approaches in use today are:

#ApproachExampleComments
1MasculineAsk your doctor for his adviceTraditional, but biased
2BothDo what he or she saysKlunky, and can disrupt reading or listening flow
3AlternateListen to what he says … follow her exampleLeads to confusion of subject of reference
4PluralListen to your manager and follow their instructionsSingular is implied by the context

The middle two are halfway attempts because they don't deal with the real issue that there doesn't need to be any gender reference at all.

The last is just the application of a convention that is already established for second person usage of the plural forms you and yours. Determination of cardinality (how many it applies to) is given by the subject, explicit or implied, of the pronoun reference.

Of course, we could make up some new singular third-person pronouns, but since there was no effort in the last half century to replace the old second-person singular pronouns of thou and thee, there is unlikely to be any attempt to do so.

Recommendation ^

I think that there is only one approach that is practical and already has precedent.

I recommend using the plural third-person pronouns of they, theirs and them, as they are the most succinct form, and they follow the convention that has already been established for the second person.

This is the only one of the current approaches that deals with the issue properly, and in a way that we are already used to.


Related sites ^

English (Australia) [en-au]

English (United Kingdom) [en-gb]

English (United States) [en-us]


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