Friday, August 12, 2016

Verbal Fixation Part 2: The Genderation Gap

Does everything have to be about sex?  Of course not, but once the subject comes up, it is hard to ignore. Gender inequality affects all aspects of modern life, including the way we speak and write. For someone on the receiving end of the issue, there is no irritant more pervasive than the constant barrage of sexually biased personal pronouns. Women feel undervalued -- betrayed, even -- when, for example, their leaders say things like, "The employee who brings in the most sales will have his picture framed and hung on the wall of honor." Does that mean only men will be allowed to win, or just that the boss doesn't think the so-called fairer sex is even worth mentioning? 

    A writer should always keep the audience in mind. If any portion of that target demographic is of the feminine persuasion, then blithely ignoring the issue is tantamount to shooting off one's foot. Gender-specific pronouns have a way of sneaking into our prose under the radar. For instance, it took some effort to avoid ending this paragraph's second sentence with "shooting off his foot," for no other reason than it's what I was taught back in the days of text-books and pep rallies. Old habits are the hardest to break, but that doesn't mean the effort should not be made. Just ask any ex-smoker.

    A pronoun is intended to stand in for a real noun. To avoid confusion, the pronoun is usually not employed until its subject noun has been introduced, as in the example, “Joe worked until he was tired.” There is no ambiguity here, because the pronoun he obviously refers to the only noun in the sentence, which is Joe. Since both the pronoun and the proper name appear to be masculine, they are said to agree.  If instead the sentence were to read, “Joe worked until she was tired,” the reader might be given pause: to whom is the word she referring? The name Joe could be short for Josephine, making this a provocative way to introduce the character. Or perhaps a man named Joe is laboring under the eyes of a female supervisor. In either case, the matter should be made clear within the next couple of sentences, and this intentional application of gender confusion would be an allowable manipulation of the language.

    But many is the time we prefer to disregard the subject’s sex, whether to render it inconsequential to the discussion or to be more inclusive. This is where gender imprecision has us virtually choking on our mother tongue. The English language has many lovely qualities, but it lacks a decent set of personal pronouns that are gender-neutral. The reason for this is that languages evolve through use, and throughout the ages, the vast majority of authors have been men. As self-proclaimed masters of the world, male writers felt no need to use any but masculine pronouns unless the subject (or object) was identifiable as a female.

    Times have changed, but the language has not. Today a writer’s effort to avoid being branded a sexist is doomed to flounder on the rocks of this inadequacy. When referring to a single entity whose sex is not declared, we have but three grammatically correct choices: he/him/his, she/her/hers and it/its. Most people would find the term it degrading when discussing a human being, so we automatically cross that one off the list. Desperately seeking a way out of the trap, many grasp at the plural pronouns they/them/theirs, which are not gender-specific, and try to apply them to the singular case. This gives rise to such abominations as, “The person had their unicycle stolen, for which they only had themselves to blame.” Sometimes, in an effort to make it clear the subject is not a group of people, the writer goes so far as to invent an even more horrendous construction, like, “Who would do this to theirself?” Who, indeed!

    Authors are generally considered to be a creative breed. One would think that a person capable of devising intricate plot-lines and breathing life into imaginary characters would have little trouble coming up with a solution to this seemingly straightforward challenge. And yet the puzzle remains unsolved.

    Not that there haven’t been some notable attempts made (sometimes by trained linguists!) to identify a clear strategy that all parties can get behind. Here are some of the more promising proposals:

          1.  Stick with Tradition. Purists will point out that the use of male pronouns is the standard form for referring to persons of undeclared gender, and they have thousands of years’ worth of literature to back up the claim. However, female authors, who only in recent decades have been able to publish under their own feminine names, say it’s high time this practice fell by the wayside. They have a point, but a world-wide reversal of the policy (using only female pronouns) would have a similarly demeaning effect on male authors.  Neither tactic is fair to both sides, but perhaps the women already have it better than they realize.  After all, what bragging rights can you claim when your gender becomes the default setting for referring to sexless entities? What better way for the so-called “emasculating feminists” to get their revenge than by "literally" neutering the men?
           2.  Alternate Reality. Maybe the two sexes should follow the wisdom of the daycare center and simply take turns. Start with, say, a female pronoun, then in the next instance, use the male version, and so on, taking pains to ensure that the two are roughly equal in number.  I have used this tactic myself, and it’s not all that difficult to do. If you want to be anally retentive about it, you can run a tally as you proof-read your work, and make adjustments after the fact.
           3.  Proscribe the Pronouns.  Just as it’s possible to avoid talking politics and religion at the dinner table, the determined writer can refrain from using personal pronouns altogether when referring to generic parties. “The person whose bicycle was stolen” is already preferable to “The person who had his bicycle stolen.” But a sentence like “The person ate that same person’s sandwich” is a rather cumbersome way to avoid saying his.  With a little thought a more reasonable solution can be found -- “The sandwich was eaten by the person” -- but usually at the cost of an active voice.

            4.   Slash and Mash.  Applying both genders where one pronoun is called for is usually accomplished with a slash mark, as in he/she and him/her. Although this does manage to serve both agendas (but ignoring the issue of which gender should have top billing), it imposes an awkward burden on the prose, slowing the reader’s progress and working against any attempt at lyrical phrasing.  Replacing the slash with a conjunction, as in “he or she,” sounds marginally better, but even this all-inclusive triad wears thin after a few iterations.

            5.  A New Word Order. There is a movement afoot to adopt a new class of personal pronouns created expressly to solve this conundrum.  Several schemes have been proposed, using invented words like sie or s/he for the subjective form, hir or em for the objective, and eir or hir for the possessive. As you can see, the use of hir for two cases would add its own confusion to the mix, but the real problem lies in gaining public acceptance of any such plan. Human nature, bastion of laziness that it is, makes the use of a plural pronoun (such as they) in the singular case a more desirable solution, inelegant as it is.

            6.  Dealer’s Choice. Author David Weber uses this one to good effect. When a female character in one of his books speaks about a person of unknown gender, she automatically uses the female pronouns. Male characters use male pronouns in the same fashion, and because Weber’s fictional society is one of true gender equality – in the military and everywhere else – it works pretty well. It can also apply to a narrator of known gender, though it may be seen as a cop-out  if narrator and author are one and the same. This technique is not without its real-world precedents. The Thai language, for example, has two versions of its most basic honorific: a male speaker wishing to convey respect employs the word kup where an English-speaker might say sir. But when the speaker is female, she says ka. The status of the person being addressed does not matter a bit; it’s all about the gender of the speaker.

            7.  Back to One. There is one word that has a rather long history of employment as a gender-neutral and identity-nonspecific pronoun, and that word is one. It is often used when the speaker does not wish to seem overly egocentric, as in “One does what one can,” or when imparting an instruction or a correction to a child or underling, to wit “One should always try one’s hardest.” It may not be grammatically correct (at this time), but I think a case could be made for a sentence along the lines of “Whoever drew that disgusting picture should have one’s knuckles rapped with a ruler.”

    Since I’m a guy, my natural tendency is to stick with Number 1. However, as a somewhat enlightened guy striving to be more attuned to the sensitivities of others, and also a realist who is reluctant to alienate half the world’s population (and thus a lot of potential readers), I would have to go with Number 2, alternating between genders. Number 6 works well enough when writing fiction, where the mix of speakers might naturally result in a fairly even score, but when I am writing in my own voice, as in an essay such as this, that scheme would only present my side of the equation, and the end product would be indistinguishable from that of the age-old “male pronouns only” way of writing.

    Some female writers may feel that their eons of submission to male dominance must be redressed through the counter-punch of using only feminine pronouns, but it is hardly realistic to think the men will follow their lead. It would be just as unacceptable for male writers take a similar position regarding masculine terms.  There has to be some middle ground – a no man’s/woman’s land where neither side is shortchanged.
  So, until a new set of personal pronouns is widely adopted – and I don’t see that happening any time soon -- my recommendation is to alternate between genders and set your sights on achieving a rough parity within each written work.  It will take some practice, but this method has two powerful advantages: it is grammatically correct and just as workable on one side of the gender aisle as it is on the other.

    It would be interesting to see whether men or women are better at applying such a rule, eschewing their biases in favor of treating everyone as an equal.

    Which of the two will prove to be the fairer sex?

1 comment:

Pete said...

This is a really thoughtful treatment of the conundrum. There is no really good choice for all situations, but being aware is a good intermediate step.

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