Monday, October 20, 2008

The pronoun "he": is it ever really generic?

By Eva Marie Wash
Many people may scoff at the idea of a mere pronoun as sexist, but a good deal of psychological research suggests that the oft-used generic "he" in professional, academic, and everyday language fails to impart a non-gender bias. Of course, this argument is nothing new, but I am shocked that there is not more emphasis drawn to it in academic writing at universities. The following passage from my psychology textbook helps to illuminate the issue:

But many studies have found that when hearing the generic he (as in ‘the artist and his work’) people are more likely to picture a male (Henley, 1989; Ng, 1990). Consider, too, that people use generic pronouns selectively, as in ‘the doctor…he’ or ‘the secretary…she’ (MacKay, 1983). If he and his were truly gender free, we shouldn’t skip a beat when hearing that ‘man, like other mammals, nurses his young’ (Psychology David G. Myers, 419).

Based upon evidence that pronouns cannot only express, but perpetuate, gender bias, how can students affect change in our own writing? Of the few available options for avoiding the generic he, many of them seem grammatically and stylistically awkward: for example, the singular “they” or the paired “he/she,” “s/he.” In a research study by Laura Madson and Robert M. Hessling (1999, Iowa State University), researchers presented another method—that of alternating between masculine and feminine pronouns—and compared readers’ perceptions of this strategy to the paired “he/she.” Although readers were more likely to perceive an essay that had alternating pronouns as having a female bias and also were more likely to give it a lower quality rating, overall these tendencies were not that significant. In fact perceptions of sex-bias was more evenly distributed, with about 1/3 who said it had a male bias, 1/3 a female bias, and 1/3 who thought it had no bias.

The use of feminine pronouns in this manner is obviously more noticeable and surprising to a reader, since our society is so accustomed to the generic he. However, such usage is important for changing the way that our society thinks about gender even at the minute level of the pronoun. If you really want to avoid any suggestion of gender, then you can often rephrase a sentence in order to avoid any generic form; it just takes a little bit more time and awareness.

1 Comments:

At October 22, 2008 at 6:17 PM , Blogger kalkin said...

Actually, the singular they is considered perfectly acceptable and has been in use in English since the 1300s. Shakespeare, Austen, Mark Twain and Shaw all used it. It also has the advantage of not conveying heteronormativity, which is always nice.

 

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