Re: Gender bias (was Evolving language or laziness)

Subject: Re: Gender bias (was Evolving language or laziness)
From: Stan Brown <stbrown -at- NACS -dot- NET>
Date: Mon, 18 Mar 1996 11:30:05 -0500

Tim Altom wrote in TECHWR-L Digest:

>But we still use "he," and that's my whole point. Dissatisfaction hasn't led
>to a change, although diehard feminists would argue that men are conniving
>to prevent it. Such a change must be organic, not dictated.

>Again, we as communicators DO NOT dictate language usage. We DO NOT preach
>to the rest of the English-speaking world. We DO NOT presume to teach the
>rest of the stupid, gender-ridden, arrogant male-centric asshole
>English-speakers just how idiotic and unfeeling their use of language is. We
>are followers, not leaders, because we have to communicate, not convert. Let
>movie stars and game show hosts lead the way with slashing new linguistic
>innovations. Then we can change our word choice.

I really think you're setting up a false dichotomy here: EITHER we use
"he" all the time, OR we make ourselves language innovators and
confuse the hell out of our readers.

As with most false dichotomies, there's a middle way: Whenever
possible, write our sentences so as not to let the reader be conscious
that a choice has been made.

Writing that calls attention to itself instead of to its subject is
less than ideal. And both an aggressive use of "he" and an aggressive
use of "feminist" constructs will call attention to themselves.

Consider your example:

>"If anyone wants to smoke, it can do it outside?"

I know you posted a deliberately absurd example, but it's also a good
one for illustrating the approach I prefer.

You ask, "Why does that sentence make us cringe?" I think it does so
because it calls attention to itself. The reader can't help wondering,
"What was the writer thinking here?" and then reflecting "Oh, yeah.
The writer started with 'If anyone wants to smoke, he can do it outside',
but then decided that's sexist and decided to change 'he' to 'it'."

The likely original, "If anyone wants to smoke, he can do it outside,"
also calls attention to itself because for a significant minority of
readers, to whom in fact it gives offense.

The solution is simple: write something that doesn't call attention to
itself, such as "If anyone wants to smoke, do it outside." If the
context makes that too informal, 100% correct alternatives are
numerous: "Anyone who wants to smoke should do it outside" and "Anyone
who wants to smoke will please do so outside" for starters. (Then
there's the less wordy "No smoking indoors, please.")

Is there always an easy alternative? Of course not. But I maintain
that obviously gendered sentences as a group are no harder to edit
than any others. And just as we should avoid most split infinitives --
not because they're necessarily wrong, but because they draw attention
to themselves and away from our actual subject matter -- so we should
avoid both gendered and clumsily degendered language, because both
draw attention to themselves and away from our subject.

As Kent Newton posted:

>In most cases, the sentence can be rewritten to remove the offending "he"
>without losing the sense or intent of the sentence. When that is
>possible, I do so.

Kent goes on to say that it's not always possible, and I agree. But of
course it's a long way from "not always possible" to "never worth
bothering about".

Stan Brown, Oak Road Systems, Cleveland, Ohio USA +1 216 371-0043
email: stbrown -at- nacs -dot- net Web:
Can't find FAQ lists? See my Web page for instructions, or email me.

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