Saturday, August 21, 2004

Gendered Pronouns

This from Crooked Timber:
Gender-Neutral Pronouns
Posted by Brian

I had always thought there was a dialect of English where he could be used as a gender-neutral pronoun. That is, I always thought there was a dialect of English where one could say (1) without presupposing that the person we hire next will be male.

(1) The person we hire next will be able to teach whatever courses he wants.

Now I always (or at least as long as I can remember) thought it was a bad idea to speak such a dialect, because there was the obvious possibility for confusion between the gender-neutral pronoun and the gender-biased pronoun. And since the effects of such confusion could easily be to reinforce stereotypes and assumptions that shouldn’t be reinforced, I thought it was politically [sic] bad idea as well as being an inefficient means of communication. But as I said, I thought there was such a dialect.

Geoff Pullum has convinced me otherwise. There is no such dialect of English. If there was, there would be a dialct [sic] of English where the following sentences would be acceptable.
  • *Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself.

  • *Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?

And clearly neither of these is acceptable in any dialect of English. So I now think that using ‘he’ as a purportedly gender-neutral pronoun doesn’t involve speaking a dialect I’d rather wasn’t used, it is just a mistake. As Geoff points out, English has a perfectly adequate gender-neutral pronoun - they - and it should be used instead of he in these contexts.
As a logical matter, is this analysis correct? I don't know that it is.

Here's how the argument seems to run:

Premise 1: If a pronoun is gender-neutral, it should be capable of use in all settings where gender is indeterminate.

Premise 2: There are, in fact, at least two examples where the word "he" is inappropriate, even though gender is indeterminate.

Conclusion: "He" is never a gender-neutral pronoun.

But is Premise 1 valid? Perhaps not. Perhaps it should be supplemented as follows: If a pronoun is gender-neutral, it should be capable of use in all settings where gender is indeterminate, except where the pronoun seems to imply the contradictory notion that gender is determinate after all.

In other words, it seems logically possible that "he" could have two meanings: Male, or gender-neutral. (This is also logically possible for "she" or any other combination of letters.) If "he" did have those two meanings, then what makes Pullum's examples wrong is that "he" is confusing where there is a definite male person who could serve as the referent. In other words, if someone says, "Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?," this might be wrong not because "he" is never gender-neutral, but because "he" is also a male pronoun; and this makes things very confusing where "he" could then be taken as referring solely to the "father," which would make the entire question pointless and contradictory.

Now it's clearer -- at the least -- if a language avoids using a single word as capable of being either a gendered pronoun or a gender-neutral pronoun. That's not the issue here. The issue is whether it is logically possible for such a combination word to exist even when it doesn't fit into all conceivable gender-neutral sentences. It is.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question is ambiguous in the first place. "Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?" actually means, "Was it your father who broke his own leg, or did your mother break your father's leg?"

You could switch the question by using different pronouns. "Was it your father or your mother who broke his or her leg on a ski trip?" But this falls into the same error as the last question, except now we don't know whether it was the father or the mother who BROKE the leg, and we don't know WHOSE leg was broken either. It could be the mother broke the father's leg, or vice versa; or it could be the father broke his own leg, or vice versa.

For the seeming intent of a question such as this, it should be phrased, "Was it your father who broke his leg, or was it your mother who broke her leg, on a ski trip?" Even better: "Was it your father or your mother who suffered a broken leg on a ski trip?"

The other sentence could be solved in similar fashion: "Either the husband has purjured himself, or the wife has perjured herself." And I don't know but that it might be correct to say, "Either the husband or the wife has self-perjured." If that is incorrect, at least the former solution will suffice.

Gender-neutral can be accomplished easily in generic forms by speaking in plural and using "they" as a pronoun. For example, "Students must turn in their work on time," instead of, "Each student must turn in his work on time." Actually, the latter isn't bad, and even using a feminine generic is okay: "Each student must turn in her work on time." It's not as if that is likely to be misconstrued to mean that only female students must turn in their work on time.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember from freshman english in college a professor stating that the "man" as in freshman or chairman was the neutral phrase. In other words, the chairman sits in the "neutral chair" versus the chair is occupied by a male. I think that is what you were looking for? However, in subsequent conversations with others, I get deer in the headlite looks when I bring it up. I look forward to your research and future columns on this. Thanks alot for your work.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

I think you've correctly diagnosed the problem with Pullum's argument, but I think what's going on here is slightly different, though what you've said is close. I think what makes sentences like this bad is that they have a gender-specific term. Gender-neutral terms are gender-neutral but not gender-inclusive in the sense of modifying male or female when the gender is specified. They're simply for use in gender-unspecified situations, and the presence of a gendered term kills its potential for use in these cases. I don't think that's much different from what you said, but I think it's a little different. I've written a much longer post on this here.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Tim McNabb said...

I would vastly prefer to have a gender-nuetral pronoun for the sake of verbal efficiency. His or Her, he or she, is so damn clunky.

I think Brian's arguments are incorrect. From the context of the copy and in context of the culture, the neutrality of the pronoun can be surmised.

"The person we hire next will be able to teach whatever courses he wants."

Surely in theis day and age, nobody would presume that a person would be precluded from hiring because they were not a "he".

I think the knicker-twist people have over the use of "he" and "his" as a gender nuetral is just another incursion by the easily offended.

Tim McNabb

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we form a gender-neutral sentence by using plural pronouns, don't we risk promoting a 'collectivizing' agenda? Or is that a goofy argument? And if it is, what's that say about the motivation behind gender-neutrality?
Tom Harrison

8:31 AM  

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