He said, she said

There’s been another kerfuffle about gender-neutral language. Although it’s mostly anecdotal outrage, the main issue seems to be whether, as is claimed by traditionalists, the masculine third person pronoun should be used in cases where no gender is specified. For example, “If a student writes an essay, he should not be marked down for his choice of pronoun”.

People have had fun with some extreme cases, like “since Man is a mammal, he suckles his young”.  But I think the problem can be posed with much more standard sentences. Let’s take sentences of the general form

“If you ask a [worker of occupation X], [pronoun] will say the biggest problem with the job is …”

The traditionalist claim is that, in all cases, the appropriate pronoun is “he”.  Think about that for a moment, and then I’ll give some examples.

“If you ask a plumber, he will say the biggest problem with the job is …”

“If you ask a secretary, he will say the biggest problem with the job is …”

“If you ask a doctor, he will say the biggest problem with the job is …”

“If you ask a nurse, he will say the biggest problem with the job is …”

“If you ask an economist, he will say the biggest problem with the job is …”

You get the idea, I hope. The sentences with stereotypically male occupations sound natural and elicit the image of a male worker. But, contrary to the traditional claim, the sentences with stereotypically female occupations are jarring, and produce an element of confusion.

That’s true even when the stereotypes are inaccurate and outdated. Nearly half of all doctors, and a majority of younger doctors are women, but the doctor sentence  doesn’t strike me as odd. The assumption that doctors are men is sufficiently ingrained that it can still form the basis of a puzzle that fools many.

7 thoughts on “He said, she said

  1. To be excruciatingly fair, surgeons are still predominantly male, so to that extent the stereotype exploited by the puzzle is accurate.

  2. Australia seems behind the curve here. Language Log – an invaluable blog run by real linguists – has posts claiming plausibly that singular “they/their/them” is now common usage when the antecedent is a class noun like “surgeon”. The battle line is when the antecedent is a proper noun like “John Quiggin”. Using “he” makes an assumption about gender identity a and is therefore discriminatory against the non-binary minority. Count me traditionalist on this one. The minority in question is tiny – far smaller than the number of gays, or even one- gendered transsexuals. I suspect they will have to live with the pronoun issue, along with more serious problems.

  3. That “kerfuffle” is nothing but the old strawman. The concern about gender neutral language is driven by stories like the one about the school that supposedly banning the use of the term boys and girls. Whether true or false, why is calling girls, girls an insult?

  4. James confirms my understanding. In effect, the goal of gender neutrality has taken priority over grammatical laws of number, although in many cases the issue can be overcome with a simple change of sentence structure, as in “If you ask nurses, they will say the biggest problem with the job is …”

  5. According to the anecdotal outrage, a student lost half a percentage mark for referring to a “car” as “she”. The newspaper of anecdotal outrage supported this usage as traditional and therefore correct because dictionary they found said so. This is a rather poor and merely ostensible reason to support the usage.

    I would find the car usage odd but I would not find calling a yacht “she” odd. The latter is only because I grew up around recreational sailors. My “norm” has no more logical support than the newspaper’s. It’s simply my “family” or “tribal” tradition and perhaps it too needs re-examination. Actually, I would probably almost unconsciously call a yacht “it” if talking to a non-sailor and “she” if talking to a rabid sailor. We can tend to amend our language according to our interlocutors.

    The call for gender-neutral language is not traditional but it does have a valid logic. The logic is that language guides ideation. The traditional use is not ideologically neutral no matter how much it pretends it is. The pretence of support for tradition can mask support for sexist language and sexism.

    A student is often given parameters within which a piece of submitted work, like an essay, is to be worked up and written. Non-sexist or gender-neutral language is a required parameter in some courses and with some markers and supervisors. It makes the student conscious of these issues. Any student ought to be able to be flexible enough to work to the parameters and to understand acceptable language in the context. A creative student could subliminally cross-critique language use at several levels if they wished. In any case, the marks lost were very minor.

  6. Even in the mid 1980s, when I studied political science, gender neutral language was expected and any deviation was noted and dealt with. I 100% agree that language should be gender neutral. I couple years back I would have agreed with Jame about there being no need to cater for those who aren’t binary but now I disagree. I think it’s time to ditch “he” and “she” and normalise a neutral option like zhe.

  7. The generic pronouns ‘they’ and ‘their’ along with the 3rd person plural berb forms are perfectly acceptable when speaking generically … Hence, “When you ask a nurse about the issue *they* say that *their* main issue is …” Those uncomfortable with the sound of the combination of a singular being covered by typically plural pronoun, can usually pluralise … e.g. nurses ..

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