Monday, July 11, 2005

Comments: 1

Regarding gender-neutral references.

Some time ago, I got into a discussion with several writers regarding gender-neutral references.

I've seen a lot of writers who use he/him/his/she/her/hers interchangeably when speaking of people as a group (i.e. writers, etc.). This has always bothered me. Am I being sexist to use the grammatically proper "he/him/his"?

This question came up when I read a message in an email newsletter. He/she/it (the editor) quoted E.B. White:

"Delay is natural to the writer. He is like a surfer--he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? Of courage?) that will carry him along. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor--as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper." - E.B. White

Then he/she/it made the following apology:

"I hope you'll understand E.B. White's sexism with all the "he/him"; it was acceptable in his day."

When I was a boy in grammar school, and also in high school, I was taught that the words "He/him/his" are considered gender-neutral when referring to a group of people. As in "MAN-kind," "chairMAN," etc. I realize that was centuries ago (at least my kids think so), but I still don't consider this sexist, but proper grammar. Have the rules of proper grammar been changed? If so, who changed them?

About Paul West

Paul West is a freelance writer and novelist. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul claims to be a "Prune Picker," though he now makes his home in Taylorsville, Utah.

You can follower him on Twitter: @PaulWWest

Published: Monday, July 11, 2005

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1 comment

  1. Someone once said to me, "There are times when she is used instead of he in common usage...such as when referring to ships."

    I believe this is a carryover from the archaic Germanic mother language when our "mother" language was gender based. Ships, automobiles, and probably many other things were feminine. In today's German, probably most of their nouns are still feminine, while some things are masculine, and still others are of the neuter gender. How one can remember all that is a mystery to me, and it's why I couldn't excel in my German classes in college.

    Yes, we English speakers still carry some remnants of our archaic Germanic mother language when we express a gender when referring to inanimate objects as "she," as in "she's a good old ship," etc.

    By the way. The proper way to refer to inanimate objects (masculine, feminine, neuter) is by their gender.

    The proper way to refer to living things (male, female) is by their sex, not their gender as I so often see. A man is not of the male gender. He is of the male sex. And the same goes for women - the female sex.