Re: Gender

Subject: Re: Gender
From: Hope Cascio <hcascio -at- GTE -dot- NET>
Date: Sun, 27 Sep 1998 15:06:03 -0400

Mary McWilliams Johnson wrote:

> The axiom "Usage makes correctness" holds true, whether we like it or not.

I completely agree with you on this. In this, writing a style guide rather
reminds me of documenting software: you are always documenting a moving
target, it matters not what lies behind the UI, and you are to document what it
actually does, not what it's "supposed" to do by some design docs no one ever

> The answer would seem to be to be to convince those who write "style
> guides" to set up some good styles and promote them vigorously so that they
> would come into widespread usage. What those styles are, I can't say. I've
> noticed that many modern writers bend way over backwards to counteract the
> sexism of past generations. For instance, they will refer to a hypothetical
> bank president, doctor, plumber, or programmer as "she" and a hypothetical
> secretary, teacher, or nurse as "he." Which seems a bit silly to me. I'm
> much older than most of you, and I am not offended by the use of "he" as an
> all-encompassing pronoun. But time marches on, and it seems we must find
> politically correct personal pronouns.

Because you are much older than most of us, I can see why it would seem silly
to you. I was born during the Second Wave, though, and spoke up against the
"universal he" in grade school. The use of "she" as a universal pronoun,
something I only ever see in feminist texts, is intriguing to me. It does make
me think of the possibilities of the gender of the person in question, in a way
that using "he" doesn't. "He" is invisible to me, but "she" draws attention to
itself and reminds me that the person in question could be either, in a way
that "he" does not, but allows me to skim on in my reading, never really
questioning the gender of the person.

> >I say we should allow "they" in the singular to avoid the gender issue;
> >it's used in spoken English anyway, and sneaks into written English by
> >those who haven't learned , or just plain didn't understand, the rule. It
> >could be just another quirk of our language.
> Let's try to think of something better. Our language has been mongrelized
> enough, I think, without practitioners of the language arts contributing to
> its degeneration. I rather like using "s/he", and while him/her and
> his/hers seem a bit awkward, I still use these configurations. (That is, I
> use them when I can't figure out a way to rewrite the sentence to avoid=
> them.)

While I've used those awkward slash combinations, they don't pass the spoken
word test, and that is where language changes first.

> We should be able to invent some words that do the job well and then
> popularize them. Once we all (or a lot of us) agree on such words, we could
> easily spread their usage far and wide by way of email and by using them on
> our Web pages.

This has been attempted many times, and none of them seem to stick. In "Woman
on the Edge of Time," for example, by Marge Piercy, the people of the future
use the pronouns "per" for the possessive and "person" for the object/subject.
I don't see anyone using these words as Piercy suggested.

> I don't object to words like "manhole" at all, since I have always looked
> upon "man" as short for "mankind." For the same reason, I don't object to
> "manhours" or expressions like "man the door." When it comes to "manpower,"
> however, I have to find a substitute.

While I've used the words myself, it's only out of laziness. Why haven't we
replaced these terms? "Mankind" IS exclusive. I don't spell "woman" "womyn,"
shun the use of the word "human" because it has "man" in it, or any of the
other "off the deep end" stuff I've seen others do. I'm not on a PC crusade,
but heck, even Star Trek took out the "no man has gone before" bit. Can't the
rest of us catch up?

<g>Oh, and while we're at it, I'm on a crusade to popularize the second person
plural pronoun "y'all."

"Ol' Diz knows the king's English. And not only that, I also know the
queen is English."
--Dizzy Dean, baseball great, responding on air to a letter from a
listener who said he didn't know the King's English

From ??? -at- ??? Sun Jan 00 00:00:00 0000=

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