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The Problematic Choice of Gender


Many languages other than English use gendered articles to describe objects. In German, for example, a fork, a knife and a spoon are described in either masculine or feminine terms. In English this is not the case; objects are gender neutral. However, while English has adopted a gender neutral stance toward the usage of articles, it has not yet found an acceptable gender neutral pronoun. When referring to an abstract “person,” for example, the writer must either choose to describe this person as a “he” or a “she.” The writer can’t use the plural gender neutral term “they” when referring to a singular person.

Correct:

A person may submit his samples to the board.

Incorrect:

A person may submit their samples to the board.

The problem with this construction is not merely that it forces the writer to choose a gender, but it also forces her to choose a side in the gender wars. In the previous sentence, I chose to use “her” instead of “him” in describing the singular entity of “writer.” This forced choice can unfortunately distract readers from the topic of the actual essay and make them think to themselves, “Why did the writer choose ‘her’? Is she a militant feminist?” This line of thinking is also true in the reverse case. “Why did the writer choose ‘him’? Is he a raving chauvinist?”

The quickest way around this political hurdle is to simply make the neutral subject of the sentence plural, thereby making it correct to use “their” or “they.”

Correct:

Readers will think to themselves…

Incorrect:

Readers will think to himself…

To return to the first example, instead of advising “a person” to submit samples, the writer may wish to advise “people” to submit their samples. However, this can become equally awkward or repetitious, especially if a piece requires the use of a singular entity, such as a driver’s instruction manual. “They take hold of the steering wheel” is awkward and potentially dangerous.

Depending on the length of the text, choosing to alternate the use of he/she at regular intervals as a concession to gender equality simply confuses people. Pieces containing less than 1,000 words should generally stick with one gender for consistency’s sake. The writer can weather the disdain of those who are easily offended by gender choice. It should be noted that certain sentence constructions, such as the previous sentence, avoid the use of gender by introducing indirect objects. This is sneaky, but effective.

Pieces that are much longer than 1,000 words can generally alternate the gender of their subjects without confusing the reader. A driver’s manual may alternate gender by chapter, for example. The best way to “be fair” in this regard is for the writer to deliberately alternate gender for each new piece she writes.

Until that magical moment when the rules of English grammar bend and allow the use of a plural pronoun for a singular noun, writers should focus on clarifying the content of their pieces, not the gender of their abstract subjects.

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