Gender-Based Pronouns

As a writer I find myself constrained by considerations that make me somewhat envious of writers in the past who were not so constrained. I am referring to the use of gender-specific pronouns. In the past it was generally understood that, in the interesting verbiage of old Victorian era contracts, “for the present purposes, the male embraces the female.” Writers could, without causing offense, use exclusively male pronouns when referring to non specific people. Today this is not the case.

I do not intend here to argue the case for or against feminism in general. I am concerned only with the practical. The fact is that many people today demand that writers specifically include the feminine. I am fully sympathetic with the feminist cause; women have been, and continue to be treated quite shamefully in our culture. I agree that they should be equally represented in all appropriate areas. Where I find myself in disagreement is in the use of language. 

I understand that language can be used as a socio-political tool, and that the words that are used and the way arguments are framed can be used as subliminal means of persuasion, but to extend this idea to the use of pronouns seems to me to be going too far. To demand that there be gender balance in this area is unreasonable, as there is no workable solution to the problem, and attempts to comply tend to raise problems of their own.

Complete avoidance of pronouns is not practical, so several possible solutions have been tried or suggested. The best solution would be to have a non gender-specific pronoun to use. Unfortunately English has no such word, and the process by which language develops and changes does not generally favor the deliberate creation of new words except when one is needed to describe something that is new or newly discovered, and has no word for it yet. Even here the path from coinage to acceptance is a chancy one, and often competing words fight it out in the marketplace of ideas.  Scientists create new words all the time, but at least at first they are only used within the confines of science, or a specific branch of science. 

Generally the way new words for common ideas enter the language is through their use by subcultures which then leaks into the language at large, usually because they are useful and colorful. The hippie subculture, for instance, gave us many such expressions such as “turn on” and “drop out” (both used in specific contexts) among many others. To purposefully try to create a new word for an existing and commonly used one and then get it generally adopted is a monumental task, and one unlikely to succeed.

Another strategy is the use of constructions like “he or she” and “his or hers”. These become cumbersome, especially when they occur more than once in a sentence, and have the negative effect of drawing attention to themselves at the expense of whatever point is being made. 

Many writers use “he” and “she” more or less randomly, with similar effect. The difficulty is that in all such cases what is being expressed is something non specific, as it were a generic person of unknown gender, and the male pronouns, when used in a generalized context, have always been understood to be inclusive of both genders. Not so the female. Female pronouns, as they have always been used are specific, and rule out the male. This leads to some level of confusion on the part of the reader. When the writer switches between he and she, and between his and hers the reader is faced with determining whether a difference in the meaning is intended. This may be a subconscious confusion, but there is always the possibility that this time the writer did indeed wish to exclude the male.

Another problem with this approach is that it is itself not without pitfalls. Perhaps the writer inadvertently uses “he” in a case where the reference is to the kind of person the reader may he sympathetic to, and “she” when referring to a non-specific criminal, for instance. In the attempt to comply with a politically based requirement, the writer is opened up to an even worse accusation of prejudice. Writing clearly and understandably is difficult enough without these additional burdens.

The final and perhaps most distasteful strategy is to resort to bad grammar. This involves using the non gender specific “they” and “their” when referring to people in the singular. Thus leads to sentences like “a writer must rack their brain to navigate these shoals, and even then they may fail.” Again, the meaning is distorted and the reader thrown into confusion.

This would perhaps be acceptable if the change made some compensatory positive difference in understanding, but in my estimation it does not. At best it serves as what is known as virtue signaling. By using these cumbersome workarounds I am demonstrating that I am a virtuous person, and sympathetic to the cause of women. All it really shows is a willingness to allow the meaning to be degraded for no useful purpose. So this kind of writing says nothing about the writer, who may in fact be completely unsympathetic to the cause but not want to offend a potential market. It also does nothing to raise the political consciousness of the reader. The only people satisfied with any of these solutions is the constituency that demanded these changes.

My own solution, which I intend to follow in all my writing, unless and until a truly workable solution is suggested, is to use “she” and “her” when referring specifically to females, and when the gender is unknown or unimportant I will use “he” and “his.” Readers may feel free to make their own substitutions if they wish, and nobody should draw any conclusions about my attitude to woman or to feminism from this decision. What is important to me is the validity of the ideas being expressed, and if my refusal to change my style on demand affects your acceptance or otherwise of my ideas, then in my opinion you are basing your response on the wrong consideration.

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