Sunday, May 22, 2011

When to use gender pronouns

I’ve been called out by Cathy Relf for using sexist language on this blog:
Sorry, I gotta call you out on your irritating androcentrism in sentences such as this: “The writer wants to make sure he has covered all his bases before he takes the terrifying step of actually making his point.”
Sexism in language is a huge subject and there’s no way I can cover the whole topic here, but I’m happy to hold my hands up on this one, while offering some mitigation. Believe it or not, I did think about which pronoun to use while I was writing that post and I deliberately chose ‘he’.
English law has a neat if not entirely satisfactory way of getting around the fact that the language has no third-person singular pronoun that is gender-neutral. In law, the rule is: “He includes she”.
Diversion 1: That quotation should be written as “‘He’ includes ‘she’”. However, the collision of quotation marks and inverted commas looks awful, so George Orwell’s rule ‘break any rule rather than write anything barbarous’ takes precedence.
Diversion 2: Language purists might point out that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are not the same thing and that using ‘gender’ to describe anything other than words is a mistake. Put simply, the word ‘she’ is female gender whereas a woman is of the female sex, just as ‘table’ in French is feminine but not female. However, I think the purists lost that battle forty years ago.
Diversion 3: I know I shouldn’t use capitals after a colon, but I find it looks better in lists even when there is only one item in the list, as in the morals I put at the bottom of these posts. I’ve probably been inconsistent there too: when I agonise over whether to break a rule, I won’t come up with the same answer every time. Sorry.
I’m actually quite happy to use ‘she’ when the writer’s gender is unspecified; in fact I’m reading a book about writing where the unspecified writer is always referred to as ‘she’, which in that context seems entirely reasonable. I don’t actually know that a majority of aspiring novelists are women, but I have heard it stated and it seems quite plausible.
One’s choice of gender pronoun should be determined by which is more likely, as in the hypothetical, “If a footballer tries to gag the press, he deserves what he gets.” Since we’re not supposed to know anything about the player who had the affair with Imogen Thomas, it’s just possible that it was a member of the England women’s football team (which has, let’s face it, been rather more successful than the men’s recently). I don’t think I’m making too many presumptions about what makes a tabloid journalist slaver, but I suspect that most of them would find that story a lot more interesting. Nonetheless, I’ve balanced the probabilities and I’m sticking with ‘he’. 
Similarly, I would probably use ‘she’ when writing about single parents, even though I’m a single parent myself.
So, why did I use ‘he’ in the example spotted by Ms Relf?
Firstly, I had only used one example in that post, and I only had to check inside my dressing gown to ascertain that the miscreant writer was male. However, I was writing about writers in general, so I need a better reason than that.
In past centuries, almost anyone who did anything in public life was male. As a result, writers have tended to say ‘he’ when writing about unspecified persons. Equality still has a long way to go and, while people are no longer surprised to see women working as doctors, judges or company directors, language hasn’t quite caught up. 
Measuring equality: the relative incidence in literature of "Mr Justice", "Madam Justice" and the more correct "Mrs Justice". It hardly looks like a triumph for equality
Some feminists argue that writers should force the issue by using ‘she’ wherever possible. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but a scrupulous writer must always remember why and for whom she is writing. Because ‘he’ is still more common (rightly or wrongly), there is the danger that the reader will be distracted from the real point of the piece if ‘she’ is used. Sometimes, however, the use of the female pronoun in a piece about (say) a traditionally all-male profession will serve as a welcome jolt to the reader, reminding him that the world is changing.

I was happy to write, “A scrupulous writer must always remember why and for whom she is writing,” but there is a risk that someone will ask, “Why do women writers need to ‘remember for whom they are writing’ but not men?” I think it’s a small risk so I’m happy to ignore it. Your political principles will often govern what you write and how you write about it, but they should never obstruct your main objective, which is to communicate.
There is one other reason why I used ‘he’ in the previous post. By its very nature, this blog tends to be critical of writers. To use ‘she’ when it was just as reasonable to use ‘he’ might have looked like a sly dig at female writers, subliminally implying that women are more prone to such errors than men are. As it happens, I have found that this kind of over-formality is more common among male writers.
Moral: Your writing should reflect the world around you, and the world isn’t all-male. However, don’t make gender obtrusive unless it’s central to the point you’re making.


  1. What PC BS!!!!!!!!
    There's absolutely nothing wrong with using he or she in everyday language.
    I can't believe you let yourself get caught up in this.

  2. The sop editing service will serve as a welcome jolt to the reader, reminding him that the world is changing.