As usual, I find myself sitting on the horns of a dilemma. (Note to self, purchase some padded undergarments.) This time it's with regard to creating gender-neutral prose in my engineering writings. In around a quarter of the world’s languages, nouns inherently reflect the grammatical category called gender. Common gender divisions include masculine and feminine (as in French and Spanish) and masculine, feminine, and neuter (as in German).
Generally speaking -- in the wider scheme of things -- modern English is not considered to have grammatical gender. However, Old English did employ the concept of gender, and a few remnants of that system still exist, such as the distinct third-person pronouns he, she, and it.
Of course, we have all sorts of words that are gender-biased, such as "chairman" and "mankind." When I was younger, I didn’t think about this at all, it was just the way of the world. I remember when things started to change and it was no longer politically correct to refer to someone as the chairman, for example. Initially, "chairperson" grated on my ears, but I've grown used to it (and similar substitutions) over time. On the other hand, the idea of referring to someone as the "chair" tends to drives me up the wall.
I also think it makes perfect sense to refer to everyone collectively as "humanity" or "humankind," as opposed to "mankind." The other day while working on my forthcoming book about grammar and punctuation for engineers, I caught myself about to say "penmanship" and swapped this out for "handwriting skills." (I know, even my mother is amazed that I would be writing such a book.)
But then there are times when you want to say something like, "An engineer should look after his tools." Eeek! I used the gender-specific "his," even though engineers come in all shapes, sizes, and genders.
There are, of course, all sorts of different tricks to get around this. First of all we can use plurals, as in, "All engineers should look after their tools." Or we can move to the second person and say "If you want to be an engineer, you should look after your tools."
Some writers take the approach that they will simply swap out "his" and "him" with "her," as in, "An engineer should look after her tools." I think the idea here is either to try to redress the historical balance by going the other way, or mayhap to tweak the reader into thinking… well, I'm not sure what, really.
Other writers flip back and forth using "his" and "her" alternately. Still others use the incredibly awkward "he or she" or "his or her," as in, "An engineer should look after his or her tools." Similarly, it's not uncommon to see "(s)he" or "s/he," as in, "You would be surprised if (s)he were to take a bite of your bacon sandwich." (It's surprisingly difficult to come up with good examples when you are trying to write something like this blog. Contrary-wise, it's surprisingly easy to run into them when you really don’t want to.)
The ideal solution would be to have a gender-neutral pronoun. Indeed, people have been suggesting options like nis and hiser for over 150 years, along the lines of, "Everyone loves nis mother," or, "Everyone loves hiser mother." Personally, I would grab onto a solution of this ilk with gusto and abandon, but I fear the chances of something like this coming to pass in my lifetime are slight.
How about you? How do you tiptoe your way through this metaphorical minefield? If you see something like, "An engineer should look after his tools," does this make you cringe inside, do you not notice, or do you simply not care?
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting