Thursday, January 2, 2014

So is it he, she or it?

But you should follow the rules.
When I was growing up and trying to avoid the wrath of Miss Schindler, my eighth-grade English teacher, I learned that subjects and verbs must agree. I also learned that "he" was acceptable for both boys and girls, just as "mankind" was acceptable for both genders.

In fact, that was the rule. An arbitrary rule, to be sure, but isn't every grammar rule arbitrary? These days we're so liberated and daring that we declare that it's okay to break a rule, because, you know, some white guy who is now dead just made it up.

That's fine with me, but we need some rules so that we can understand what other people are saying. That's hard enough as it is, since so many people are saying just pure nonsense.

It's like English TV shows: if the actors have a heavy accent and speak too quickly, I have a hard time following them. Unconventional grammar is like an unfamiliar accent. People trying to use a second language get hung up on slang and idioms, the rule-breaking stuff that people just make up.

That's today's sermon. I'll now pass the collection plate.

So what are we to do with this he/she business? Some women object to the constant use of "he," because, well, there are she-women out there, too.

That's okay by me, except that it's problematic for a writer. Constantly switching between he and she is clunky. Substituting "they" for he or she just doesn't sound right to anyone instructed as I was. Writers and editors abhor "he or she" or "s/he," because they are, well, wordy. And stupid.

The Oxford Dictionaries are firmly politically correct: use "he or she" and "they." If you go that way, cite Oxford. Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.

I recently came across a rousing discussion of this in a Linked In group called Linkeds & Writers. I suppose you have to join the group to follow along.

These are people in the trenches earning a living (or trying to) by cleaning up your writing. I'm going to quote a few of them to give you some suggestions. I'm only going to quote women.
"I'm also big on using plurals: customers, not customer. Also, to use your example: "The contact person/representative who returns a customer's calls will already have that individual's history." Yes, sometimes it means being a little wordier than you'd like, but it resolves the problem." ~ Debra
So she's avoiding it by writing around it, which is what I'm guessing most writers and editors try to do. It's not always possible.
"It seems to me that the first choice should always be to avoid 3rd-person-singular pronouns entirely, and build sentences using tricks like Debra's to avoid leaving holes where the reader would expect such pronouns. Plurals work in many other cases, and named individuals in most of the rest. 
"Switching genders back and forth is so apt to lead to problems. Though alternating pronoun genders is often recommended as a way to approach the [3rd-person-singular pronoun] issue, it actually tends to exacerbate the problem because it sets a sort of mental calculator going in the reader’s mind -- Are the two sexes really portrayed in equal numbers and with equal emotional loading? -- that reduces the mental circuitry available for the topic actually under discussion even when, as rarely happens, the answer is yes." ~ Hilary
I like that, because it suggests that all our worrying may just be annoying the reader, who is surely going to notice our contrivances more than our political correctness.
"What a cumbersome load of PC crap! Switching genders (to satisfy the client's PC angle) creates only cluttered and confusing writing. Stick with "he" or "they" and be done with it. Submitting to a ridiculous gender aspect, particularly in business writing where people generally really don't care and would rather read clarity and simplicity of expression than cumbersome ping-ponging of pronouns, well, you and the client enjoy the written mess you're creating." ~ Alison
There you go. Just do it that way. Great writers have been using "they" in this context forever. Shakespeare is often cited. Shakespeare is often cited for just about anything anybody wants to do. So if you go this route, cite Shakespeare.

Nobody every got fired for quoting Shakespeare at the water cooler.

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