Re: Remember the Audience

Subject: Re: Remember the Audience
From: Tom Tadfor Little <tlittle -at- LANL -dot- GOV>
Date: Mon, 18 Dec 1995 13:11:26 -0700

karen randolph wrote:

> I'm shifting direction on the Changing our Language thread ...

> In a Re:Changing our Language post, Tim Altom wrote:
> >Most women ignore the indeterminate "he" unless it's ground into
> >their faces.

> To which Kris Olberg replied:
> <<Opinion or fact? If fact, let's here the details.>>

> This is a point I think should be considered, because *I think* the
> majority of opinions on this list are from well-educated people who
> have a "cosmopolitan" outlook.

> [FYI: I put the gender-issue question out company-wide, offering the 3
> basic opinions that have been discussed on the list, and 52 people (46
> women and 6 men said they didn't care either way; 1 (ONE) female said
> she would prefer "she" used equally with "he"; and 16 people (13 women
> and 3 men) said to use "he" consistently. Note: The employees here
> are predominately women that grew up in this area.]

This issue came up on the copyediting-l list last year; the results are
preserved in our style FAQ

Karen touches on what to me is the only salient point in the whole discussion:
the reaction of the audience. As we have seen from postings to this list,
a number of people regard generic "he" as exclusive, inappropriate, or even
offensive. Using it hinders communication with this segment of the audience.

Others, however (both men and women) find it unremarkable and unproblematic.
Some of the suggested write-arounds are bound to hinder communication with
this segment of the audience.

There is no single answer that works splendidly for all potential readers.
We must be cautious not to project our own feelings and opinions on the
readership at large. My sense is that "gender-neutral writing" is much more
popular in academic circles (which encompasses much technical writing) than
it is the English-speaking world generally.

Dictionaries are compiled to document current usage, rather than make
prescriptive recommendations. As such, they give some information regarding
how the language is really used. AHD3, published in 1992, gives a generic
meaning for "he". In fact, if you wish to use a generic third-person singular
pronoun, this is the only choice. "She", "it", and "they", for example, are
not used in the generic singular sense with enough frequency to be understood
by English-speakers generally.

AHD3 goes on to report a survey of their usage panel, a group of "language
experts". 46% of these people recommend using coordinate forms such as
"he or she"; 40% recommend continuing to use "he" generically; the remainder
advocate assorted less conventional solutions.

I am not citing AHD3 as the ultimate authority on any of this. But at least
it points in the right direction by looking at the actual practice of
English writers generally and what English readers, also generally,
expect and comprehend.

This discussion gets quickly derailed into a holy war when we cease to
think about the audience and think about ourselves instead. One poster said
"changing the language is the only way to change the culture". I find that
assertion patently ridiculous as a statement about human history, and
misguided as a formula for successful communication. On the other side of
the debate, the assertion that "he" is the *correct* generic pronoun
regardless of the facts of actual usage is equally narrow-minded.

If we are interested in communication, rather than winning battles in
some supposed politico-linguistic war, then we must do two things.
As writers and editors, we must select idioms that will be broadly understood
and not antagonize. As readers, we must show some tolerance for the
variety of idioms currently in use by different writers, and not react
with offense and animosity where none was intended.

In practical terms, this means avoiding generic "he" in writing, particularly
when that writing is directed toward what Karen calls a "well-educated"
and "cosmopolitan" audience. But it also means accepting it in the
writing of others, recognizing that it *is* a commonplace way to use
the English language, and is routinely employed by writers who have no
intention to offend or oppress.

Perhaps some day in the future, English will provide us with an unproblematic
generic pronoun in the third person singular. That will be good. But that
day is not today. Right now we have a variety of different approaches,
including the traditional generic "he". Until consensus evolves, I think we'd
all do well to not personalize the issue and make it something bigger and
uglier than it needs to be.

Tom Tadfor Little tlittle -at- lanl -dot- gov -or- telp -at- Rt66 -dot- com
technical writer/editor Los Alamos National Laboratory

Visit Telperion Productions on the web at

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