too much typing—since 2003


cranky today, apparently...

One thing I teach my students is to improve their writing by having a clear sense of what they're doing and making sure that anything they include contributes to that task. In other words, unless what you're trying to do is distract and confuse your reader, don't distract and confuse your reader - for example, by making statements that lead to irrelevant or mistaken notions.

One of those mistaken notions is the idea that, generically, most agents are male. In other words, you shouldn't use "he" and its derivatives when you're referring to an unknown or generic agent. Since this isn't an academic paper, I'm not going to dig up sources, but studies demonstrate that contrary to some arguments, masculine pronouns in a generic context do tend to carry along ideas of maleness. That is, generic "he" causes readers to imagine male figures more frequently than neutral references do (such as, most usefully, rephrasing into the plural - far more felicitous than the awkward "he or she").

However, it's equally distracting to throw in anti-sexist points when that's not the goal of your argument - particularly if you think you'll be able to do so effectively merely by playing with pronouns. I read an article recently that quoted the following sentence from another source:

Imagine a baseball team manager choosing to send just two of her three dozen players through the rigors of spring training, regular practices and coaching.

Now, the article has nothing to do with gender discrimination in MLB managerial hiring practices, but the writer decided to derail his readers' train of thought with that "her." I mean, eliminating gender assumptions is a worthy goal, but so are lots of other things - yet writers aren't compelled to mention them parenthetically in the midst of a discussion of something else (floss daily for good dental hygiene). And there's something sneakily self-congratulatory about slipping in arguments by way of something as weakly effectual as pronoun usage - as if the writer is taking the opportunity to congratulate himself for his gender sensitivity, or hector readers for assuming (despite the fact that, uh, every MLB manager has been male) that his hypothetical manager is a man. (I'm imagining an Onion headline, similar to one in the latest issue: Gender Inequality Solved by Unexpected Usage of Feminine Pronoun.)Probably it's a better idea, if it's important to you, to write an article about iniquitous gender assumptions rather than toss references like grit into the wheels of an otherwise unrelated sentence.

Of course, I've been known in this very forum to insert irrelevant negative remarks about our beloved Ass-Hat-in-Chief, so I suppose I'm a hypocrite. Oh wait - I did say that it might be a writer's goal to distract and confuse readers... Whew - off that hook!

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