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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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The Need For A Gender Neutral Pronoun

Comments (60)

The English language badly needs a gender neutral pronoun. The more I write, the more I feel the need for this. In my post yesterday, Does Your VP of HR Report To Your CEO? I felt this very acutely as I tried to be gender neutral to avoid the “CEO’s are male, VP of HR are female” bias. But I failed and just used “he” throughout the post.

Jason and I struggled a lot with this in our new book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist. We finally gave up and used “he” throughout. But we felt compelled to discuss this in the Preface.

“In an early draft, we varied gender on pronouns, using “she” liberally throughout the book. However, as we edited the book, we found that the mixed gender was confusing and made the book less readable. So we decided to use male pronouns throughout as a “generic pronoun” for both genders. We are sensitive to gender issues in both computer science and entrepreneurship in general—Brad has worked for a number of years as chair of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (www.ncwit.org). We hope our female readers are okay with this approach and hope someday someone comes up with a true gender-neutral set of English pronouns.”

In general, I’ve adopted the “use the pronoun of the author” approach. I’ve tried (s)he but I don’t like it – I find it to be hard to read. I like “phe” or “per” but neither of these have had any consistent usage that I’m aware of.

For all the women out there reading this, when I say “he” I actually mean “he or she” or “she or he”. And for all the english scholars and style book writers out there, please push the use of “phe”, “per”, or some other gender neutral pronoun on the world.

  • Christopher McAtominey

    ‘One’ would work, with the drawback though that it gives an air of aloofness and isn’t commonly used in informal prose.

    I’ve never come across phe or per befor so it would only confuse me more. In general I accept that s/he, when talking about positions, doesn’t reflect a gender bias but an ease of use. I think that you are probably worrying too much about it – have there been many complaints?

    Bill Bryson has an excellent book for writers “Troublesome Words”, that is a great reference when stuck.

  • http://www.startupboyo.com/ RichardF

    I’m interested to know why you used  “he” rather than “she” throughout?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Every now and then someone complains. But I often feel strange about
      just using he.

      • Anonymous

        Brad – this is totally acceptable, but does not quite feel inclusive. Not a fan of phe and it does not seem right………maybe there is an olde English word that works. 

        • Anonymous

          The VP of People post was excellent. So much startup mentorship is business fundamentals and not specifically high growth related, but that post stands out as high value growth insight. Thanks. 

      • Anonymous

        BTW, the VP of People post was excellent. So much startup mentorship is business fundamentals and not specifically high growth related, but that post stands out as high value growth insight. Thanks. 

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I was told that one of the common approaches is to simply use the
      gender of the author. Since I’m male, I use he.

  • Anonymous

    Singular “they” is the most widely accepted gender-neutral option.

    You might run into some readers who complain about it, but you could put each one in touch with a different randomly-selected linguist and be assured that the protester walks away properly chastised.

    • Bjorn

      Fully agree… they/their works well in my opinion as is the one I use consistently. 

    • Rebecca Cannon

      Totally concur. 

  • Jeova Sanctus Unum

    It could be because I am a he but I think one of the issues we have in the he vs she vs phe is that we try to act and speak as if there is no gender. I have four sisters and an amazing mother and I celebrate the differences.
    I think we take away from women and men when try and lump us together. Not the best place to form my thoughts but I really think we can move forward by accepting our differences and just enjoying them instead of trying to hide them behind phe.

  • http://www.joaobelo.co.uk/ Joao Belo

    Well, at least in what concerns yesterday’s post, here are my thoughts:

    ‘the executive team’/’the team’ instead of ‘his executive team’/’his team’ (for the CEO team’s references)
    “(…) VPs of People can do this assuming they are on the executive team (…)”

    Personally I tend to use ‘they’ to avoid this issue, but I see your point. Look on the bright side, though: at least the English language has mostly gender-neutral nouns. Having to figure out the sex of a stapler, a bottle of water, a laptop, a wallet, etc. is a million times more pointless!

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Good suggestions.

      I can’t imagine what would happen to my brain if I had to remember le
      stapler vs. la stapler. Kaboom.

  • http://kontrary.com Rebecca Thorman

    Having not read the book, it’s difficult to say how successful you were in just using “he,” but it’s my sense it would have easily been just as great if you would have used “she” and “he” throughout, and probably would have not been less readable. I find it extremely odd that by somehow using the pronoun “she” that the book would be confusing. I’m not really sure why that is even a sane justification. 

    (and in your post on VP of HR reporting to the CEO, why not just make the CEO female and the VP male? Or make them both female? You actually only used pronouns three times – “his” twice and “he” once, so I’m not sure why this was so difficult).

    To Richard’s point, you could have just as easily used “she” and it would have been just as readable. And to Jeova’s point, neutrality is not the point. “He” is not gender neutral and certainly doesn’t achieve parity. 

    I appreciate you starting the discussion and being open on the issue, but wish you would have tried harder.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I tried really hard in the book. The biggest issue is that varying he
      and she in the context of hierarchy (in the case of the book -
      entrepreneurs and VCs) is either (a) confusing or (b) limiting (e.g.
      she is the VC, he is the entrepreneur). When you start mixing these up
      (she is sometimes the VC and sometimes the entrepreneur) it gets
      really complicated.

      I’ve been told by numerous people to just use the pronoun of the
      author (e.g. he). I don’t like this but it appears to be “editorial
      conventional wisdom” right now.

      • http://kontrary.com Rebecca Thorman

        I’m not really sure what editorial people you’re talking to, but it would have made perfect sense to assign the VC one gender and the entrepreneur another. At least then the female gender would have had a part in your book. As it stands, if you read the book and it is all “he,” it is like women don’t exist in your world. Readers don’t care about “editorial conventional wisdom” anyway and I certainly wouldn’t expect a VC to care about conventional wisdom either as you make your living off of people who defy such odds.

        A better rule to follow would be to use the pronoun of your customer, in your case the reader. Like P&G is known for talking about their customers as “she” and “her.” They don’t assume their own gender when talking about their products, they get in their customers’ shoes. Hopefully, you expect your readers to be both “he” and “she” and should have used both pronouns accordingly. (And in this day and age, P&G should probably be doing the same)

        Again, appreciate your willingness to put the issue out there, but will have to respectfully disagree that you made the right editing decision.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          I thought hard about using “she” for the VC and “he” for the
          entrepreneur. The challenge there was that the two authors (me and
          Jason Mendelson) are both VCs and both male and that got confusing
          when we were talking from our perspective.

          Then I tried making the VC “he” and the entrepreneur “she”. When I
          read through a few sections, this felt like I was making the male one
          up on the female (since in some cases there is hierarchy in the
          discussion.) Now, this hierarchy flips, especially in cases where we
          are bluntly critical of VCs, but it still felt imbalanced.

          I think tried varying it. This made it impossible to read and keep
          track of what was going on.

          I accept that you think I made the wrong decision. That said, women
          are hugely important in my world (evidenced by my involvement in NCWIT
          - http://www.ncwit.org) and hopefully by my effort to understand this better
          and figure out an appropriate long term solution for my writing.

          Fortunately my next book (The Startup Marriage) is co-authored with my
          wife (Amy Batchelor) so there will be plenty of he and she in that
          one!

          • Ann

            I find it upsetting that all the commenters complaining about your use of “he” are women — makes us seem petty. Just wanted to provide an opposing view and say that I have no problem with you using “he” exclusively. I also find it annoying when there is constant switching between “he” and “she” and more upsetting when it feels like “she” is always the person making the mistake in the story.

          • http://www.feld.com bfeld

            “She is always making the mistake in the story” – I think this is the
            thing I’m MOST sensitive to in my writing. It never bothers me when
            “he” makes the mistake but I always think twice when I write something
            where “she” makes the mistake. And, when I reflect on this, my
            intellectual response here is to be annoyed with myself – of course
            BOTH he and she make mistakes. And then this makes the writing that
            much harder.

        • http://stevenhb.myopenid.com/ StevenHB

          P&G’s outcome isn’t particularly satisfying either.  Do they think that only women do laundry using Tide?  Is laundry a “woman’s job”?

          • http://kontrary.com Rebecca Thorman

            Totally agree, Steven. As I say in my comment, P&G should be looking at how they define their customers in this day and age as well. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  • Mark Barbieri

    Unfortunately this really is a chicken and egg type of problem.  If there is minimal awareness about the meaning of the new pronouns, writers will not use them as not to confuse the readers.  But if writers don’t use them, the public won’t become aware. 
     
    This same dynamic, though can work to an advantage.  If, as individuals we simply begin using the new pronouns in text, it is possible to use the feedback loop to promote the knowledge and further usage.  This however does not address the issue of which set of new pronouns to use.  Text would be the easiest to begin this (and similar) changes by using a similar rule most people use with abbreviations. For instance…
     
    When a CEO speaks with the executive team phe (gender neutral for he/she) should always …
     
    This can be used at the first use of the word “phe” in each article and then an understanding is established for the entire peice.
     
    Just a thought.

  • Mac

    Since ‘she’ already has ‘he’ in ‘it’, how about….sh’e….s’he….s-he…..sh-e…she

      

  • DaveJ

    The robot overlords will use “it” to refer to us, so we could just start doing that now, a bit early.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I’m down with that.

  • http://profiles.google.com/hmduey Heather Duey

    I usually use “they” when trying to be gender-neutral as well. 

    Even though I’m a woman and I appreciate the whole equality thing, I don’t get caught up in that stuff when I’m reading.  I assume that a CEO could be male or female, as could any other position in any company.  Depending on who has done the writing (in this case, someone I respect, as well as someone who has personal affiliation with promoting women in the workplace), I assume they believe the same thing.  In my opinion, there are far more things to be upset about than whether you’ve written something with a gender-neutral tone.  I agree with taking the gender of the writer in stride. 

    If you were writing about being a mother or something that is really unlikely for a male to understand, I would take offense – but that’s a completely different issue.

  • http://twitter.com/farrahbostic Farrah Bostic

    Wondering why you didn’t choose ‘she’ as the default. I understand the ‘gender of the author’ argument, I suppose, but why was the choice between “all ‘he’”, varying gender, or an uncommon gender neutral pronoun?  I’ve read several pieces of varying length recently where the author was male, and yet chose the feminine pronoun as the default. It didn’t hinder my reading comprehension, and seems like an easy enough solution.  If you’re willing to deal with female readers seeing nothing but he/him/his, why not switch it up for male readers and use she/her/hers?

  • http://twitter.com/FastFedora Trevor Lohrbeer

    “They” is the most commonly-accepted gender neutral pronoun replacement for “he” and “she”. I’ve never heard of “phe” and “pher”, though do know some people who use “ze” and “zer”. 

    Apparently the debate on gender neutral pronouns has been going on since the 1700s, so it’s not likely to end soon. Check out:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun#Modern_EnglishOr for detailed reading, the Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ:http://www.aetherlumina.com/gnp/

  • http://www.adelemcalear.com adelemcalear

    Cutting “she” and “her” entirely from your book in your interest of (your perception of) easier reading only serves to paint a picture where women don’t play a role. There are plenty of ways, as evidenced here in your comments, to be gender neutral and/or to use both genders (individually) throughout your text. I assure you that, as a woman, when you say “he” I don’t interpret it as “he or she” or “she or he” like you say you mean. I just don’t.

  • http://twitter.com/idmillington Ian Millington

    “They”. Although it is more common as a plural, it has a very long history as a singular pronoun in the English language, and it is gender neutral. It is the third person equivalent of “you” (which has also historically been used more commonly as a plural, c.f. “thee”).

    There are very few cases where it is unusable. It is considered “wrong” by a certain brand of grammatical pedants who haven’t actually read much English literature, and who think that grammar is prescriptive rather than descriptive.Use “they”. Everybody knows it, it reads and sounds fine, and it has been used for centuries.

  • http://www.zoliblog.com Zoli Erdos

    (s)he :-)

  • http://twitter.com/cindygallop Cindy Gallop

    Ben Horowitz used ‘she’ as the default pronoun throughout his excellent post on ‘The Psychology of a CEO’, which occasioned massive (approving) commentary throughout the blogosphere back at the end of March:

    http://techcrunch.com/2011/03/31/what%E2%80%99s-the-most-difficult-ceo-skill-managing-your-own-psychology/

    Nobody, but nobody, had an issue with it.  And we female tech entrepreneurs and CEOs were delighted.

     

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Seems like I should use she in a bunch of upcoming posts!

      • http://twitter.com/cindygallop Cindy Gallop

        We’d love that, Brad. :)

  • adamnash

    I would love to see if this has any metrics impact.  See if you can’t do all three versions, and see which one gets the most traffic.

  • http://www.billda.com Bill DAlessandro

    Totally get it. We have a rather elegant solution in the south for the 2nd person plural – just drop a “y’all” and you’re all set regardless of the company :) If only there were something similar that was generally accepted for 3rd person singular – “phe” doesn’t seem like it’ll work for the general population…

  • http://twitter.com/rachelsklar rachelsklar

    Brad, it’s great that you put this out there for discussion – at the very least this decision wasn’t made thoughtlessly, as decisions which casually exclude women often are. Not having read the book it’s hard for me to say, but I wonder why different examples couldn’t have mixed it up a bit, with Cheryl the founder here and Sarah the VC there. (Chris Dixon also regularly uses female pronouns.) 

    My big issue at Change the Ratio is with VISIBILITY – pushing against the blindspot where women often fall. See this example of an all-male tech dinner welcoming Mark Suster to Seattle - http://bit.ly/kASKOs – where the ratio went totally unnoticed (except by women). Visibility begets access begets opportunity – the casual “I know this person” “You two should meet” “Hey have you seen X’s product?” widens to include women which spreads to more women. I’ve really seen that happen, for me and through me, in this past year since Change The Ratio was founded (and I owe a debt to your friend Howard Lindzon for being a first mover on this for me – he emailed David Cohen back when TechStars NY launched and said, you should work with this woman. That access for me begat access and opportunity for others.) Depicting a world without women as active, dynamic, contributing participants not only rolls back that progress, but is like starting a company and being really excited to advertise in  classifieds. We need to skate to where the puck is going. So I look forward to your next book, and all its wonderful and diverse pronouns! And pushing the puck until then. Thank you, though, for raising this. 

  • http://www.activetheoryinc.com Alex Gourley

    I find the most palatable option to be sticking with “he” or “she” through entire sections, but alternating. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/kallenberg Arron Kallenberg

    IMHO, although the he/she debate and the question of gender neutrality are progressive, I still find it a little ironic that people can be so passionate about these issues while, at the same time, completely ignoring the issue of Transgender. Women and men are only two constructs - among an entire palette of human existence / identity – that someone can choose to identify with and/or that society can choose to attribute to another person. Also, there is a big difference between neutrality and equality. 

  • http://www.edmullen.com Ed Mullen

    Having recently had a baby, I’ve been reading through all the prerequisite child rearing books. The use of gender pronouns really caught my attention. Many books used “baby” as the gender neutral pronoun. (Obviosly wouldn’t work in general usage.) But the usage I felt was most confortable was alternate pronouns for each unique situation. If you start our talking about one topic, use the same pronoun throughout that topic. When you go on to the next topic, chapter, story or whatever, switch. This alleviated confusing because you were talking about something new anyway. 

    In some situations I find “they” usable too.

  • wordsmith

    The problem with keeping pronouns consistent with the author of the piece is that it subtly reenforces the idea of author/audience gender exclusivity – that female authors have only female audiences and vice versa. 

  • http://putt1ck.blogspot.com Chris Puttick

    Here’s the real problem: if you are sensitive to group-related issues, the language used doesn’t matter; if you are looking to discriminate or for discrimination, whatever language is used the discrimination will be lurking somewhere, ever-present in mind if not in actuality. By focusing on groups and memberships thereof you perpetuate discrimination, not eliminate it.

    Surely the ideal is for people to be unconcerned about gender/race/religion/age/sexual preferences/hair colour. Are you surprised to meet women or people of minority races (different in each country…) in senior roles? You have an issue. Are you constantly looking for evidence of discrimination? You have essentially the same issue.

    For the record, at a recent OpenCoffee London meetup, there were people of all races, ages and hair colours. I can”t be sure all genders, but there were definitely women and men; and as for religion and sexual preferences I didn’t ask. All entrepreneurs together, without discrimination.

  • http://twitter.com/nakisnakis nakisnakis

    Hi Brad,

    Your post reminded me of the following article: “Women Are Not ‘Guys’ and Men Are Not the ‘Norm’” by @AnneDoyleldr http://onforb.es/jLbXwz 

    Look forward to your thoughts.

    Best,
    Natalia

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Anne is right on the money.

  • CCiufo

    I read through many of the posts (though not all) and don’t think I have seen reference to “ze” as a generic pronoun. In transgender training for a non-profit I have worked with we were trained to also expect and accept the use of “ze” as gender-neutral. I believe this term is being used more often in the transgender world, rather than in the examples you have stated, but it might be something that could be useful. 

    Additionally, I wanted to point out that as a woman, I am not typically bothered or offended when ‘he’ is used as the pronoun in books I am reading. I think much of it is left to the author to decide what makes the most sense for them in writing and I’ll accept their rendering for what it is. 

    And finally, I hadn’t heard about your upcoming book with your wife. I’m looking forward to reading that!

  • Ben+nospam
  • Natalie

    “They” used to be an acceptable generic third person singular pronoun, until the grammatical powers-that-be decided “he” should be generic. I keep that in mind when I write, and I’m actually more willing to use “they” as a singular. Of course, some less-informed grammar snobs might get in a tizzy about it, but I’m all about reclaiming the gender neutral pronoun.

  • Derek Scruggs

    I used to use s/he in writing documentation, but it only works in the subjective. There’s no graceful equivalent for the him/her form.

  • Hilton Perantunes
  • Derek Neighbors

    If your writing sucks so bad that people are focused on which pronoun you use instead of the content you are producing, I would suggest focusing on the content.  If your mind is more occupied with pronoun usage than the content, do people a favor and stop writing. #pussificationofamerica

  • http://direwolff.wordpress.com direwolff

    Despite your rationale, having a gender neutral pronoun doesn’t make sense to me since we don’t live in a gender neutral world.  There are women and there are men (transgender tend to identify with one side or the other, at least those that I’ve met), and so the richness of our speech should not try to combine these to clean things up, so-to-speak.  I suspect your discomfort with the use of “she” is more one of habit than because there’s anything really hard to read about it.  For all the years that roles were treated as the bastion of the “he”s or the “she”s, it’s hard to rewire one’s understanding of language and undo what’s taken so many years to form in one’s mind.  Perhaps because my mother tongue was French, where even all objects are considered to be of one sex or the other, I’ve always been comfortable moving between he and she without a second thought.  Anyway, this is a good discussion to raise for the benefit of recognizing that “she” is just as appropriate as “he” but not because we truly need a gender neutral term…at least not until we need to start giving rights to robots where gender may not be at issue ;)

    • guestpost

      Merely because you’ve not met an androgyne does not mean we do not exact, my dear.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PNWTM45M3EPZFTCHRX2ARUIFZI cook animial

    Its needed.

    Thanks,

    Paul Azous

    CEO, PPM.net

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UTFQXHKUCDYQ5E2RSBSSL4G4IA Bill Mosby

    English has a better start at being gender free than most languages, in which you often have to remember the gender of many other things too, at least when the noun endings are inconsistent.

  • http://www.connectme360.com Anonymous

    As we move towards more informal communications, speechwriter Jon Favreau uses “our”, “us”, “we” and “you” and sometimes “they”, but only uses “he” and “she” when referencing a specific person.

  • Rich

    Wow! I’m going to disagree with the need for a gender neutral pronoun. Actually, I find it hard to believe there are still people who even pay attention to such stuff.

    Gender, race, age, etc. don’t matter. All that matters is how much money can you make for me!

  • http://daveheal.com Dave Heal

    I understand why people feel the way you do, Brad, but I think this kind of thing is ultimately misguided.  Not to mention that most recreationally created words rarely become permanent fixtures in a lexicon, even when there’s a compelling linguistic gap that needs filling.  There’s no way spoken English is going to accommodate a gender-neutral pronoun like hesh or phe or any other the other made-up words people have tried in the past and so they’re probably D.O.A. for written English as well.  The history of these changes is that they never escape the academy, and for good reason.    

    You also have to ask what problem this is actually solving. Is the relationship between thinking and language such that having people use different words is going to raise awareness or make an appreciable difference in sexist thought? That’s rhetorical, but I’m fairly certain the answer is “no.” Linguistic determinism (the idea that people’s thoughts are constrained by the words available to them in their language) is both intuitively (to me) and empirically false. 

    The General Semantics movement was into this sort of thing at the beginning of last century.  I forget whether it was them or their disciples that were agitating for getting rid of “to be” because it encourages the identification of humans with abstract concepts and so dehumanizes them or some such nonsense.  

    Anyways, without knowing why you think we need a gender-neutral pronoun, I won’t belabor the point.  And I think choosing “she” over “he” is fraught with a lot of the same political problems and even worse semantic problems.  Words are not gendered in the same way people are.  People who object to “mankind” are fighting a silly battle. It’s a bit like people who are actually bothered that we drive on parkways and park on driveways.  

    So, is this linguistic retribution? Is using “she” getting us closer to equality or just substituting one thing for another and in the process fetishizing gender? Because when we use “she” in this way we’re fighting against a history of its exclusive use as a gendered pronoun.  In the end, is getting rid of the use of “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun worth the potential confusion it creates? I say no, but the language will ultimately figure it out.

  • Just another human

    As much as I love your blog, I have to disagree  here.  Fact is, we get too caught up in gender and gender equality rather than tackling the bigger issues at hand.  What tends to happen is, and is happening is promotions are / will be being based on if you’re *female* so that we can have better *PR* rather than — promotion because you’re just good!  There are a lot of places with “old boy clubs”, but if we keep talking about gender all the time instead of focusing on issues or other topics, we’re only going to create the gender bias the other way, against men, and then it’s the whole cycle again.  Until we as a society start accepting that men and women are an integral part of society and each one has inherently different strengths, yet can acquire other skills as needed, we’re always going to be in gender wars.  Trying to find a pronoun for he vs she is not going to solve it.  Not caring and just sticking to convention may not either, but atleast it wont ruffle the entire universe :)  Using she just seems awkward.  Using (s)he may be marginally better but annoying to read.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lenoxus Chris Morrow

    When gender-neutral pronouns are used, it often raises eyebrows and the users are perceived to be “changing” things that “aren’t such a big deal”. Accusations of feminism, sexism, and political correctness are hurled.

    But politics needn’t have anything to do with it — using gendered pronouns for people of unknown gender is simply inaccurate. It’s gendered language that’s “changing” things from what’s “normal”!

    That’s why it frustrates me to see comments that say things along the lines of “If you’re worrying about pronouns, it must mean your writing can’t stand on its own”. The problem here is that, in a sense, we’re all “bad writers”, throughout history, because (at least in this area) the English language is itself badly written, so to speak.

    When you discover that whales are mammals, it’s silly to continue using language that still calls them fish. It’s not a matter of whether or not we need to raise consciousness about the mammalness of whales, or worries that if we call them fish we will unconsciously assume that they don’t need to breathe air — it’s just that language should be more or less clear and accurate! Experts in various areas change language all the time by virtue of reclassifying things all the time, eg, defining whether or not a tomato is a fruit or Pluto is a planet.

    Since the category “people whose gender I don’t know” isn’t equal to “people who are male”, it’s plain silly to use language that implies as much. Certainly, the pronoun thing is going to be a fair bit more difficult to fix, but that doesn’t mean the accuracy problem isn’t there. In the meantime (because of various difficulties with introducing new pronouns and with using “they”), it’s good to mix in a “gender-neutral she” here and there, just to balance things out.

    Another comment I’ve been seeing is that gender-neutral pronouns somehow lump us all together, ignoring the diversity of humans. Well, for one thing, that’s exactly what using a “neutral he” does, but the “he” is worse, because it erroneously lumps all humans into the category of “male”.

    Secondly, gender isn’t the only area of amazing and wonderful human diversity. Why exactly do we need pronouns that delineate sex, but not ones for different ages, races, or religions? If I refer to both non-parents and parents with the pronoun “they”, am I implying that parenthood is meaningless and unimportant? Heck, even different species don’t have unique pronouns, and it doesn’t get more diverse than that! A tomcat is still a “he” and not, I don’t know, a “felihee” or something. (Imagine a language with that many pronouns!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/lenoxus Chris Morrow

    When gender-neutral pronouns are used, it often raises eyebrows and the users are perceived to be “changing” things that “aren’t such a big deal”. Accusations of feminism, sexism, and political correctness are hurled.

    But politics needn’t have anything to do with it — using gendered pronouns for people of unknown gender is simply inaccurate. It’s gendered language that’s “changing” things from what’s “normal”!

    That’s why it frustrates me to see comments that say things along the lines of “If you’re worrying about pronouns, it must mean your writing can’t stand on its own”. The problem here is that, in a sense, we’re all “bad writers”, throughout history, because (at least in this area) the English language is itself badly written, so to speak.

    When you discover that whales are mammals, it’s silly to continue using language that still calls them fish. It’s not a matter of whether or not we need to raise consciousness about the mammalness of whales, or worries that if we call them fish we will unconsciously assume that they don’t need to breathe air — it’s just that language should be more or less clear and accurate! Experts in various areas change language all the time by virtue of reclassifying things all the time, eg, defining whether or not a tomato is a fruit or Pluto is a planet.

    Since the category “people whose gender I don’t know” isn’t equal to “people who are male”, it’s plain silly to use language that implies as much. Certainly, the pronoun thing is going to be a fair bit more difficult to fix, but that doesn’t mean the accuracy problem isn’t there. In the meantime (because of various difficulties with introducing new pronouns and with using “they”), it’s good to mix in a “gender-neutral she” here and there, just to balance things out.

    Another comment I’ve been seeing is that gender-neutral pronouns somehow lump us all together, ignoring the diversity of humans. Well, for one thing, that’s exactly what using a “neutral he” does, but the “he” is worse, because it erroneously lumps all humans into the category of “male”.

    Secondly, gender isn’t the only area of amazing and wonderful human diversity. Why exactly do we need pronouns that delineate sex, but not ones for different ages, races, or religions? If I refer to both non-parents and parents with the pronoun “they”, am I implying that parenthood is meaningless and unimportant? Heck, even different species don’t have unique pronouns, and it doesn’t get more diverse than that! A tomcat is still a “he” and not, I don’t know, a “felihee” or something. (Imagine a language with that many pronouns!)

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