Avoid Gender Pronoun Traps with They

When I first started working with EdTech companies as an angel investor, “she” was the pervasive pronoun used to describe teachers by entrepreneurs, investors, and the media. Whenever I heard “she”, I thought:  “Are all teachers women? Do I think the same when I hear ‘he’ in another context?”.

Since I’ve begun listening to books via Audible, I’ve become more attuned to these biases. For example, when I listened to Rachel Carson's seminal work,“Silent Spring”, I was struck by the gender-specific “he” for engineers, scientists, and politicians and “she” for homemakers. This was even more noticeable in Audible being read gently and expertly through my earbuds by a woman, Kaiulani Lee. The occasional gender-specific language was a series of intellectual speed bumps for me, diverting my attention from the topic to gender bias. Were all the engineers men in 1962? What was Carlson’s own experience? And, given all the effort at inclusivity the last 50 years, would she still write the same way today?

Evidently, the understanding of how language evolves is the subject of “textualism”. While this could be just a curiosity, it can actually matter deeply, in particular in interpreting a legal text.  Perhaps the best-known example of a true scholar of textualism is the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Many of his key opinions are explained in a great book, “Scalia Dissents”. His approach was to interpret past rulings as they would have been commonly understood at the time they were written. I was reminded of Scalia’s work in a recent Wall Street Journal Opinion piece by Kyle Peterson, “How to Write Like Antonin Scalia”.  The article detailed much of what I found interesting about Scalia’s understanding of the evolving English language. One interesting takeaway was the increasing acceptance of “they” in the singular to avoid gender bias, a shift which I believe makes good sense.

Photo credit: WSJ http://www.wsj.com/articles/can-they-be-accepted-as-a-singular-pronoun-1428686651

Future readers will need to understand we began this shift in the 21st century, and prior work would thus appear more gender specific than past authors intended (like Carlson’s “Silent Spring”). In fact, in January 2016, The singular “they” was voted the word of the year by over 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society. To date, the singular “they” has been endorsed by the AP-style book and Washington Post . “They” winning acceptance is a positive and intentional move toward making the English language more inclusive and avoiding gender-specific language traps.

The alternative is continuing use of the gender specific pronouns “he” or “she”, the gender neutral but noisy “he or she”, or the dreaded “s/he” (which mercifully seems to have fizzled out with the political correctness of the late 80’s). These constructs can distract the read from the point being made. Consider these examples:

“As an engineer, he is able to solve problems…”

“As an engineer, she is able to solve problems…”

“As an engineer, he or she is able to solve problems…”

“As an engineer, s/he is able to solve problems…”

“As an engineer, they are able to solve problems…”

The first example may be comfortable to traditional readers, but it may remind a modern reader of how few engineers are in fact, women. The next three could make the reader suspicious the author has a gender agenda unless the engineer was actually a woman. Rachel Carlson’s own career was inhibited by the male-dominated world of the time and her writing reflected that fact. I would suggest the last example, using “they,” flows best, keeping the reader’s focus on what it is about an engineer - they can solve problems. Of course, you could also just write “Engineers are able to solve problems” which would flow even better but sometimes you’re stuck in the singular and then it’s best to stretch “they” to your advantage.

The English language inherently allows for gender neutrality in ways that other romance languages do not. Latin-based languages, like Spanish and French, have set gender identification and nouns default to the masculine. For example: If a group of women includes one man, then it is correct to use the masculine pronoun. Some other languages that, like English, are gender neutral include Chinese, Finnish, Hungarian, Japanese, Malay, Swahili, and Turkish.

Gender stereotypes likely play a role in our children's development on a conscious and subconscious level. Watch these kids have their assumptions about gender roles turned around.

As English writers, let’s take advantage of these features and keep moving ourselves to a truly post-gender narrative. Don’t we have a collective responsibility to ourselves and the next generation to promote gender-neutral language?