Generic he *again*

Subject: Generic he *again*
From: Melissa Hunter-Kilmer <mhunterk -at- BNA -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 15:13:53 EST

On Mon, 18 Mar 1996, Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET> wrote a bunch of stuff,
including the following:

>> I must disagree with your logic. In fact, using "he" doesn't distract most
readers, because it's a default condition, not an abnormality. It's the
unusual that distracts, not the expected. <<

For me, being male is never the default condition. It would always be abnormal.
And people like me make up more than half of my audience.


Stan Brown wrote:

>> 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.") <<

Does any of these sentences distract anybody on the list? I doubt it. Does the
sentence "If anyone wants to smoke, he can do it outside" distract any of us?
Clearly it does.

Research your audience. If you're writing for a group of tech writers, you
probably want to cast your sentences in a non-sexist way. My feeling is that it
never hurts to do this, if you don't do distracting stuff like "s/he."


Tim goes on to say:

>> My whole point is that even language that gives offense to a minority is
not, ipso facto, wrong, ill-advised or subject to immediate change . . . I'm
offended by many things in our society, but I don't press the issue because
I know it's futile . . . Why should I have to contort sentences built with
Anglo-Saxon words that have long and honorable pedigrees to satisfy a minority's
irritation? <<

It's a small offense, but it's palpable. It's like the offense I imagine people
of color feel when *all* the models in a magazine's ads are white. These
offenses can add up over the years to anger. Why should we put up with them?
Why not try to educate those who don't know how their actions hurt others?

I suspect it's futile to press this issue with you, Tim, because you've already
made up his mind and might feel that you would lose face if you changed it. Are
there any tech writers on the list who didn't realize what "generic he" writing
can do? This post's for you.

Moreover, all the sentences I cited above used Anglo-Saxon words. I don't know
where you got the idea that anybody is suggesting jettisoning such words, Tim.


>> Why would I be accused of insulting women by simply
referring to generic humankind as "he"? Who is a rabid enough feminist to
shriek in anguish merely by being mistaken in generic, unknown, faceless
terms for a male? Are males really such dismal creatures that being referred
to as "he" is tantamount to being called a "bitch" or something even more
insulting? And is that admittedly minority loathing for masculinity enough
of a reason to gut a basic language construction? I think not. <<

You're missing the point here, Tim.

It isn't that I am insulted by being mistaken for a man -- that doesn't happen.
:-) It also isn't that I hate men -- I'm married to one and two of my four kids
are future men. I'll go way out on a limb and speculate that Richard Mateosian,
who also finds "generic he" writing distracting, doesn't mind "being mistaken
for a man" and doesn't hate men.

Here's the problem: half of the human race is seemingly not covered in your
writing. The generic "he" doesn't work. It conjures up images of only men, and
that isn't accurate. This problem can be solved with no pain at all. You'd
read my stuff and never cringe, because my writing doesn't say "Look! I'm
eliminating the generic 'he'! Look, look, women count too! Oh, boy, I am soooo
politically correct!" I think *that's* distracting. Herstory, womyn, stuff
like that -- inveigh against those, why don't you?

Melissa Hunter-Kilmer
mhunterk -at- bna -dot- com
(standard disclaimer)


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