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PC language

Ben Jones jonesbb at BELOIT.EDU
Mon Jan 25 07:05:07 EST 1993

I have some observations on the use of PC language, from the point of view
of a "male feminist".  I was taught to use the male pronoun for the
generic, and I have always found that awkward.  I now usually use something
like "he or she said" and keep it at least pronounceable and grammatical,
rather than using "s/he said" which I detest.

Kate McCain writes:

>... For the "strong constructionist" of the force of
>language and implications of word choice, the answer is usually the
>rhetorically clumsy "his/her, " "s/he" or maintaining the specific noun
>as referent rather than substituting the pronoun.  All of these produce, as
>near as I can tell, less well crafted prose. Others, and I put myself in this
>category, recognize the need for "gender-fair" language (at the least) and
>tend to use male or female pronouns randomly (though without changing gender
>in midsentence). We view the issue as one of "equal visibility," perhaps. I
>tried this most recently in an article on competition and secrecy in genetics.
>I received from the editorial office of "Science, Technology & Human Values" a
>lengthy paper on how to write "gender-free" prose ["gender-fair" was not
>acceptable]. It was difficult and made the sentences more clumsy, but that
>was the editor's prerogative.
>Some may be reacting to the extremes of "gender-free" language construction --
>perhaps as it introduces political/emotional overtones into writing where it
>was not intended and may be obtrusive -- the term "herstory" comes to mind.

I have always been impatient with these constructions for exactly the
reasons Kate McCain cites, while at the same time wanting to avoid
gender-biased language.  How do you _pronounce_ "s/he" if you are reading
it aloud?  Do you stop and interrupt your own and your listener's trains of
thought in order to substitute "she or he"?  Does anybody actually *like*
this language or do even the most radical feminists consider it only
*fair*, at best?

Marivonne Rodriguez writes:

>even if a phrase may be unacceptably awkward to the novelist, the poet, or
>anyone else primarily concerned with crafted prose, it need not be excluded
>from everyday language, where such strict, rigid  literary rules are not known
>to apply. (I dont know, is email crafted prose or everyday jargon? ;) ) And as
>far as *scientific* literature, it will be a sad day when it begins to accomoda
>te an authors poetical aspirations over its duty, first and foremost, to educat
>ion and accuracy,    even if the latter is met at the expense of a slash (/) or
>two or three.... There are much worse impediments to fluid reading (such as
>paragraph-long sentences) which are quite commonplace in the scientific
>literature. All the authors that get away with that, as you all know!! Crafted
>prose must not be high in the list of primary goals for many journal editors.

I don't think that using clear, well crafted language is a matter of
strict, rigid literary rules, nor of poetical aspirations.  Scientific
literature has enough going against it just on content alone without
putting more obstacles in the way of clarity.  The fact that bad writers
get away with writing horribly long sentences does not mean that those that
try to write well should use phrases which are both politically and
grammatically distracting.  Permit me to paraphrase:  "It will be a sad day
when scientific literature begins to accomodate an author's *political*
views over its duty, first and foremost, to education and accuracy."  Even
worse would be using constructions that deliberately give our mental images
a shake when we are on the verge of finally understanding gas-diffusion
equations as they apply to genetic drift.  8-}

But I agree that current usage is not adequate.  Use of the male pronoun
for the generic case does tend to bias the reader's thoughts. 

Gender-fair language is a step forward.  But choosing the gender of the
pronoun at random interferes with understanding the content.  I have to
look back to see if the author is suddenly referring to someone specific
when the gender is unexpectedly switched.  What I really long for is a way
to be gender-precise, or to be precise, gender imprecise.  If I don't know
the gender of a person I am referring to, I want a word that expresses that
uncertainty without drawing attention to itself, such as we have in the
plural:  "Three biologists put _their_ careers on hold in order to raise
children.  Their wives are impressed."  

"They" and "their" are truly gender-neutral.  We need an equally
gender-neutral word for the singular.  Perhaps we could coopt the plural
word for the singular.  "A biologist put _their_ career on hold.  Their
spouse is impressed."  But it's disconcerting.  (Some people do it already,
however:  "A person who does that puts _their_ tenure in danger.")

Perhaps we need a new set of words.  "A biologist put _ther_ career on hold
to raise children.  _Shiz_ spouse was impressed."  (And listeners
unfamiliar with the usage would wonder if _heesh_ had too much to drink at
the reception.)

How about the neuter pronoun?  Extremely fair:  "A biologist put _its_
career on hold to raise children.  _Its_ spouse will be impressed if any
children turn up."  (The grammarians might wince, but what could they say? 
Maybe the scientist really IS neuter.  I used to have a cat that was at
least as curious as any scientist and _it_ was neuter. :-) ).  Using the
neuter seems even more disconcerting than coopting the plural, but not for
grammatical reasons.  Somehow I think neither feminists nor chauvinists
would go for it, but I wonder why.  Perhaps it would have a similar effect
to what Liz Johnson quotes Douglas Hofstadter as suggesting:

>one solution is to use the opposite pronoun from what one would expect
>so that our mental images are given a shake.  I like that idea.

Anyway, *anything* we do is going to take some getting used to.  Why don't
we get used to something that is simple and clear rather than something
awkward and self-conscious.  Using the neutral pronoun has the big
advantage of still being English.  Furthermore, English is used all over
the world by scientists, many of whom are not native speakers.  Using the
neutral pronoun might be less confusing to them.  (Comments by those of you
who are not native English speakers?)  This suggestion would have no new
words or ungrammatical new uses of old words.  Just new (and perhaps
disconcerting) ways of thinking about gender.

Ben Jones                  BioQUEST / Department of Biology
jonesbb at beloit.edu         Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin

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