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Round Again with Gendered Language

One point that really needs to be emphasized in the dispute over gendered language has to do with the importance of a literary work ethic. What is at play in the problem of gendered language is twofold. First, there is the ethical problem of referring to both genders only using masculine terms. For most people who aren’t strong patriarchalists today, this is at least acknowledged as an important problem. Second, there is the grammatical problem of how to write well when using an indefinite singular pronoun. If the English language had one readily available this whole discussion would likely be a non-issue. However this is the impasse as things stand. Attempts to create new pronouns seem bound to fail. As such we must pursue other options.

We’ve already seen that in a wide variety of cases the universal “they” is literarily appropriate, and offers a way out of many of these sorts of problems. However, as we’ve also seen that there are clearly some cases where such usage of “they” is pretty difficult grammatically. What to do?

My most basic answer here, as an editor who has a vested interest in good writing, is simply that writers need to be less lazy. In almost every case where we seem to need a singular pronoun there is generally an easy way to write the the sentence using different syntax that does not require the use of the problematic pronouns. It just takes some actual thought and work when writing. Speaking as one who has to edit the work of authors all the time, I would really suggest that one of the real issues at play here is the issue of laziness. To write in ways that are both grammatically appropriate and gender-accurate is more difficult. It takes more work. Some authors don’t want to take the trouble. But good writing demands that we take both matters seriously rather than looking for the easy way out by trying to deny one of the problems.

For some examples of how to do this, read on after the jump.Some of the different options include the following (take from Garner’s Modern American Usage):

  1. Delete the pronoun reference altogether. E.g.: “Every manager should read memoranda as soon as they are delivered to him [delete to him] by a mail clerk.”
  2. Change the pronoun to an article, such as a or the. E.g.: An author may adopt any of the following dictionaries in preparing his [read a] manuscript.”
  3. Pluralize, so the he becomes a they. E.g.: “A student should avoid engaging in any activities that might bring discredit to his school.” (Read: Students should avoid engaging in any activities that might bring discredit to their school.)
  4. Use the relative pronoun who, especially when the generic he follows an if. E.g.: If a student cannot use standard English, he cannot be expected to master the nuances of the literature assigned in this course.” (Read: A student who cannot use standard English cannot be expected to master the nuances of the literature assigned in this course.)
  5. Repeat the noun instead of using a pronoun, especially when the two are separated by several words. E.g.: “When considering a manuscript for publication, the editor should evaluate the suitability of both the subject matter and the writing style. In particular he [read the editor]. . .


  1. Brad E. wrote:

    This is helpful stuff, Halden. Theologically, given your affinity for Jenson, what is your take on the essay he published about the necessity of unabashedly using the male relative pronoun for God? I know you addressed this briefly in a previous post’s comment, but he marshals strong theological and literary arguments in support of his case, and if you’ve read the essay (contained in the collection he edited as a response to the challenge of feminism), I’m wondering your thoughts.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Thomas wrote:

    You might want to provide or reference an argument concerning the ethical problem of using “gendered language”, rather than simply painting those who don’t see such language as problematic “patriarchalists”.

    And the use of terms which aren’t strictly correct does not necessarily constitute lazy writing.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I’ll have to look at that Brad, I haven’t read it as of yet. I do tend to think that Jenson gets a little hotheaded and oddly conservative on matters related to sexuality, however. Not that all of this is bad, but sometimes it seems to lead him to weird places.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Brad E. wrote:

    I was wrong, he didn’t edit it. It’s called Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, and his essay, which he refers to in ST:I when he first uses the masculine pronoun for God, is called “The Father, He”.

    I agree that Jenson sort of ratchets up the rhetoric with sexual matters; I would just love for someone level-headed and non-reactionary to respond to the arguments in that essay, since I think they are worth assessing, even if too strong or even wrong.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Benjamin wrote:

    Great blog, very thought-provoking. I look forward to exploring it further. I’m just curious about the phrase “literary ethics.” I am a dilettante at theology, so perhaps that phrase carries some currency in that world, but in the world of literary theory and criticism I have not run across the term (at least not from any scholars producing work which respects the concept of language having meaning and isn’t incoherent “post-what-have you” nonsense). I am curious as what you mean by it.

    I see the concept of “literary ethics” as problematic, inasmuch as it would likely be supported by a literary theory which is developed from a ideological perspective, whereas a good ideological perspective would – at least as I see it – be supported by a specific and meaningful concept of language.

    Meaning is a concept which is somewhat fluid, and the use of gender-specific pronouns in contexts which are offensive today simply weren’t offensive at some point in the past. Are we to edit the past masters along with our hymnals and Bibles? I recognize that there is great validity to your arguments, but the paradigm of “literary ethics” is running in danger of – in the wrong hands – becoming an excuse to edit willy-nilly. Along with the fluidity of meaning comes the realization that editing a past work to make it more politically correct also changes its essential meaning, which would be equally unethical, considering the murderous insanity of past regimes which oppressed dissent.

    Having said all that, I do appreciate the discussion and the blog. Looking forward to your response and some more spirited content.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Benjamin, the short answer is that I do not know if anyone else has used the term. By it I mean that as writers I think we have some sort of moral obligation to write in a manner that is as accurate and non-ideological as possible. I don’t think it should be construed as endorsing any sort of wholesale editing of past works whose literary practices we would disagree without.

    It seems to me that morality and language cannot be disassociated from each other at all. On this point I’m something of a Wittgenstienian. A good treatment of this whole connection can be found in Herbert McCabe’s excellent book, Law, Love, and Language.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  7. Nathan Smith wrote:

    I’ve written up a response to Carter’s argument against gender-inclusive language in Bible translation.

    As for the ethics of gendered language, it can be thought of in purely pragmatic terms: in order to communicate as effectively as possible with a contemporary audience, it is necessary to use contemporary idiom.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

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