Friday, August 28, 2009

Avoiding Gendered Pronouns

Here's a good example of the problem of the gendered pronoun. The back cover of Helen Gardner's The Business of Criticism announces her main idea as follows.

The good critic, Miss Gardner believes, carries a torch: he does not wield a sceptre.

Presumably, "Miss" Gardner is a good critic; presumably, then, "he" does not wield a sceptre. The Business was published in 1959 and today I can't imagine a copy-editor letting this problem pass uncorrected, certainly not unqueried. Interestingly, the solution is not at all straightforward.

Certainly, "he or she" would ruin the effect.

The good critic, Miss Gardner believes, carries a torch: he or she does not wield a sceptre.

Indeed, most style guides insist on avoiding gendered pronouns (he, she, his, her), not simply neutralizing them by using both genders. The standard suggestion would be to render it in the plural, making it refer to "critics" in general rather than an arbitrary "critic". But this, too, becomes very clumsy because of the several items the several critics must then handle or refrain from handling.

Good critics, Miss Gardner believes, carry torches: they do not wield sceptres.

You'll agree it lacks the crispness of the original. So what do you do if you want to get the reader to imagine an individual but unspecified person ("the good critic", "the ideal employee", "the modern manager", "the busy CEO")? E.g.,

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre: he carries a torch.

You may find yourself insisting that there is no other way of achieving the effect you are after. One solution is to repeat the original subject of the sentence:

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre; the ideal manager carries a torch.

If you're absolutely adamant about refering to an individual, you should probably use a convention that analytic philosophers were very fond of in the 1980s: just use "she" instead of "he" as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre: she carries a torch.

But if Miss Gardner had been a "Mr." we'd have had the same problem as above. So before you go that route (which may not please your copy-editor anyway), try dropping the pronoun altogether:

The ideal manager carries a torch, not a sceptre.

Unfortunately, it forces you to give up the difference between "carrying" and "wielding" because introducing a new verb requires a new subject (and since it is the same person, the personal pronoun is a natural choice). There may be no perfect solutions in this area. Sometimes the simplest sentence is not politically correct.

Implications on Monday.

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