What's in a pronoun?


About 20 years ago, when I self-published my first book, I had to make a stylistic choice. Wordsmith is a creative writing workbook, accompanied by a teacher's guide with helpful tips for directing the student. "The student" is understood to be either a girl or a boy. I had to use a lot of personal pronouns, or else resort to clumsy synonyms, as did one author who felt compelled to use a rotating series of designations in her book about raising preschoolers: youngster, toddler, and (ugh) moppet. So in my introduction to the teacher's guide, I explained why he would be used as a generic pronoun: "simply because it's easier and more resonant that the awkward compounds he/she or himself/herself. Style won over social conscience." I never received any complaints.

Elsewhere, though, social conscience is clobbering style, while the methods have changed. From awkward compounds like s/he, we went through a phase of grammatical disagreement (e.g., The student may argue over their grade), which is thankfully declining. But what I see more of is an abandonment of compromise-many writers are throwing out he altogether and using the feminine form almost exclusively. The own author's gender doesn't seem to matter-male writers do this as often as female, older as well as younger.

As a solution to a perceived problem, it creates more problems than it solves. The pronoun she automatically excludes. For centuries, he has been understood as generic in certain contexts, like man and mankind. The Bible even makes this clear in Genesis 1:27: "in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." The substitution of she introduces a jarring distinction-whereas the masculine pronoun doesn't necessarily summon a masculine image, the feminine does.

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Which seems to defeat the purpose of "gender-inclusive" language. Words like wife, mankind, spokesman, etc., are assumed to slant perception in favor of the male at the expense of the female. According to theory, only when such distinctions are eliminated, or at least sharply reduced, can true equality exist. I think this was the idea behind the Bolsheviks' insistence that everyone be addressed as "Comrade." Pages, the word-processing program from Apple, frustrates columnist Mona Charen because it "seems to have been designed and programmed by the women's studies department at Cupertino Community College." Pages flags every noun it sees as too specific, and suggests alternatives (spouse, person, etc.) that either don't fit the context or stomp on style.

Some vernaculars assign gender to inanimate objects-see Mark Twain's "The Awful German Language" for the most hilarious takedown. I presume this is not considered subversive in Germany, and what that says about German culture I'm not qualified to guess. What the current pronoun quandary suggests about our culture is that we're very confused.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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