Wednesday, April 13, 2005

He, She, or It

Over at the Whatever, John Scalzi takes on a few reader questions in today's post.

The whole thing is good, but being someone who writes technical manuals for a living, I was particularly amused by his commentary on "'He or she' or singular 'they'?" Here is what he says:
They. There are times when sexual differentation is grammatically relevant, but most of the time it really isn't, and there's not a single person who actually believes that the generic "him" isn't actually the work of some long-dead grammarian with a micropenis and a pathological fear of speaking to chicks. Screw Mr. Micropenis. Long live "they." Having said that, there are times I'll use "he or she" or will use "him" or "her" generically, because I want to. I'll also use it when I'm writing professionally, because it's not generally worth my time to piss off a copyeditor, whose job it is to preserve the long-dead Mr. Micropenis' editorial strictures because that's what their employer demands of them. I'll just use it on my own time and maybe as more people think as I do, the great publishing houses of the world will tell the unlamented Mr. Micropenis to take a hike.
Gotta love the bit about Mr. Micropenis!

At any rate, for some reason the singular "they" grates on my ears. In the documentation that I write, I usually use "he or she" if I need to. The thing is, it is pretty easy to work around this whole issue for the most part, at least in MOST technical writing.

First, in docs that address the user, do it in the second person: "To do some great, fabulous thing with this software, choose the OK button."

For some of the stuff I write, the "you" is someone like a system administrator. He or she (ha, there it is!) is the person doing the procedures, but also has "users" further down the line to which I must refer. So I have to say things like this: "To change properties for an individual user, select ABC and choose the OK button. He or she will see the change immediately."

I have two strategies that work around the awkward "he or she" in most cases:
  1. Word examples as plural. Then, the "they" is actually grammatically correct.
  2. Create a specific example using a gender-specific person's name, then use the appropriate pronouns. This works pretty well for me because I show lots of sample data in my docs, and many of those screen shots include names. So I have to come up with a variety of names anyway, and it isn't any trouble to choose some to use as examples. I have a few that I frequently use -- both male and female -- and the gender in a given example is pretty much random. Well, except for ONE scenario. Certain procedures are things that secretaries or administrative assistants do. For those examples, I always like to use male names if I can -- just to turn the stereotype on its head ("the secretary Roger can take care of his boss Lisa's needs by..."). I doubt anyone else has ever noticed, but it gives me a sense of satisfaction anyway.
If neither of these are feasible, I use "he or she" and live with it. Doesn't happen too often.

Incidentally, this issue pops up from time to time on a tech writing listserve I read. Just go to the Techwr-L archives and search for "he or she" or "s/he".

Sometimes, people posting on these discussions refer to the "gender neutral" method as being "politically correct." That attitude rather pisses me off. Acknowledging that the world -- and the set of people your writing is addressing -- contains both males and females is simply logical. Ask a five-year old boy to read a sentence with "he" in it and ask what kind of person he pictures. I am certain he will say "boy" or "man". Duh. (note this is an example of method number 2 - create an example with a specific person with a specific gender. Then you can safely say "he"! See how easy that is?)

Back in college, I recall a computer science textbook for one of my classes actually used "she" and "her" as so-called gender neutral terms throughout the entire book. The intro included a footnote explaining that after centuries of male dominance, the tender sensibilities of the readers should be able to handle reversing things in one textbook. Something to that effect, anyway. I recall being somewhat amused by this. It is amazing how quickly the "we can use just one pronoun to represent everyone" crowd changes their tune when the pronoun chosen for that job is "she"!

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