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):
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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]. . .“