Saturday, June 11, 2016

Generic Pronouns

The use of feminine generic pronouns on the part of male authors is something I’ve lately been noticing more and more. There might be a more precise term for this, but I’m talking about when an author makes reference to some hypothetical individual whose gender is not specified, yet chooses to speak of this individual as she or her. For example, here’s the statement I came across that originally sparked my reflection on this:

“A maturing believer in Jesus can present herself as a model for others to imitate. In fact, if she is faithful to her identity in Christ, she must become a model.”

This generic “maturing believer” can be either male or female, so which gender pronouns are you going to use in reference to this person?

English speakers don’t have a gender-neutral way of referring to an individual. So we have to use some form of either he or she, as most style guides frown upon the use of the third-person plural they when speaking of a singular person. In the example above, the author decides to use feminine pronouns (herself, she, her). I, on the other hand, virtually always use masculine pronouns in these instances, mainly because an English professor in college taught us to simply defer to our own gender. That advice made sense to me, so I’ve always went with it.

I suppose that’s why it feels odd to me whenever I observe male authors using feminine generic pronouns. I once noticed it in a piece written by a professor of mine, and since I had a good relationship with this professor, I asked him about it one day. He told me that it was an intentional effort to be more gender-inclusive. He also, in jest, called me a he-man woman hater for making a big deal out of it. But I wasn’t making a big deal out of it. It just struck me as odd, that’s all: the practice itself, as well as the reasoning behind it.

But another thing to note is that there are certain scenarios which, by nature, seem to call for male pronouns:

“Suppose an intruder breaks into your house and demands that you give her all your money.”

Now that’s just weird. Sure, the generic intruder might be either male or female, but would I ever seriously suppose that the intruder would be a woman? Of course not. So it would be most natural, in this case, to use the masculine pronoun him.

This reminds me of a certain place in A Series of Unfortunate Events where a scenario is imagined in which a “masked woman” climbs through your window at night. I assume Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) intended that to be funny. In any case, it was hilarious to me. Why? Because intruders with concealed faces are always described as “masked men.” But hooray for gender-inclusivity.

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