Re: use of he/she/they

Subject: Re: use of he/she/they
From: "Marie C. Paretti" <mparetti -at- RRINC -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 13 Aug 1997 09:25:54 -0400

Well, I was out of the office yesterday and came in this am to find a
flurry of mail about pronouns and gender. I'm always fascinated when this
discussion comes up b/c people seem to have such strong reactions to the
various options - witness the "it's awful" comments regarding either using
"they" with singular referents or using "she or he" or "s/he."

For what it's worth (not much today, believe me), I actually lean toward
"he or she" or "s/he" if rewording the sentence to avoid the issue proves
too complicated. I know that many people find it "awkward" or "clumsy,"
but really, the reason it seems that way (particularly the s/he
construction, which isn't really any longer) is b/c we're not used to it.
If we'd grown up reading books that used "s/he" or even "he or she" rather
than "he," it would seem perfectly normal and not in the least bit awkward.

As for the whole " 'he' is gender-neutral argument," most studies I've seen
(sorry, don't have the references handy) suggest that while most people can
*say* it's gender-neutral, when you ask people to read something and then
'visualize' from it, i.e. describe the picture it invokes, the "he" pronoun
creates the image of a guy. So apparently subconsciously, for all our
rhetoric, "he" (and "man" etc.) ain't neutral.

And "they"? Well, here the issue to me is confusion -- if we go with
"they," then sometimes "they" would refer to one person, sometimes to more
than one, and the reader would have to figure it out. . . . Readers figure
lots of things out quite well, I know, but the less I ask of them, the
happier I am.

If I were Supreme Language Dictator, or English had something like those
French people do to keep the language pure, I'd create a gender-neutral
pronoun, but unfortunately, no one seems willing to let me be dictator of
anything -- I can't figure out why, but I've resigned myself to the situation.


Marie C. Paretti
Department of English Recognition Research, Inc.
University of Wisconsin - Madison Blacksburg, Virginia
mparetti -at- facstaff -dot- wisc -dot- edu mparetti -at- rrinc -dot- com

Sometimes I feel like a dog
standin' on a tool box
in the back of a pickup truck
doin' 90 round a corner
just tryin' to hang on for dear life.
James Bonamy

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