An Editorial Rant Against Gender-Neutral Pronouns


This editor is going to go out on an anti-feminist limb and say how much she hates gender-neutral pronouns.

Yes, I’m female. Yes, I’m educated. And yes, I’m all about men not being pigs. But the idea that I should be grossly offended by seeing the non-gender neutral pronoun “he” to describe a generic individual is ignorant.

I never even thought about getting offended by it until I went to college, where I was schooled in liberal arts studies such as Shakespeare, which is fascinatingly informative; Modern British Lit, which is pointlessly pretentious; and the largely regressive tendency toward politically correct language.

I say “largely regressive” because the basic concept behind politically correct language seems to be a good one. We should take other people into consideration instead of making it all about ourselves. But somehow, that call for respect did a complete 180 into the self-focused practice of seeing how many different ways we can go through life getting offended.

As it turns out, there are a lot of ways available. The English language, for instance, is chock full of potential micro-aggressions against women such as the utterly appalling practice of using the non-gender neutral pronoun “he.” To combat such horrors and to be as inclusive as possible, we’re supposed to either use “she” or pluralize everything.

Yet the first substitute doesn’t always work out from an inclusive perspective. And “they” doesn’t always work out from a grammatical or stylistic perspective.

For example, “she” is a very specific pronoun in the English language. “She” means a female. A female human. A female animal. A female concept or construct like Lady Liberty or the mechanical love of a boat captain’s life. But always a female.

“He,” however, is much more generic. Whenever writers say something like:

The stereotypical editor is detail-oriented. If he sees a mismatched pronoun, he’ll make sure to fix it.

Readers who aren’t going through life looking to get offended automatically understand that the writer isn’t claiming that editors are always male. Using the male pronoun in this context is actually using a gender-neutral pronoun.

There are plenty of other words out there that change meaning based on context. Like “liberal.” If we say “liberal ideology,” it’s automatically assumed to be political commentary. If we say “liberal slathering,” it’s safe to assume we’re referring to something apolitical, such as the application of mayonnaise.

Now, admittedly, it’s easy enough to switch up the previous “editor” example with gender-neutral pronouns. It flows just as well and makes just as much grammatical sense to say:

Stereotypical editors are detail-oriented. If they see a mismatched pronoun, they’ll make sure to fix it.

However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes writers very specifically want or need to talk about a generic individual. In which case, what? They’re supposed to use the very gender-specific “she”?

That’s bound to put too much emphasis on the pronoun instead of the larger sentence, making it seem as if the writer is trying to make a political statement. Meanwhile:

  • Slashes, such as the one in “S/he,” look amateurish or rushed.

  • “He or she” gets really bulky really fast, particularly when the sentence has to include a “him or her” or “his or hers” as well.

  • “They” is not singular. The arrogant AP Style Guide can say whatever it wants to say. “They” is still not singular.

“They” means more than one person. It does not mean less than two people. This is not a context issue. It’s a matter of numbers, which, incidentally, are about as gender neutral as you can get.

Look, language changes over time. That’s a given. But for better or for worse, that’s a natural evolution. It’s gradual and therefore can be accommodated more easily and competently than forcing a political ideology onto it with no respect for its constructs and understandings.

Besides, gender-neutral pronouns haven’t made my life any easier as a female. In the decade-plus since being schooled in them, I haven’t seen any less sexism than I did before. All I’ve seen is that my work as a writer and editor are a lot more complicated – just to keep from offending people who are going through life looking for ways to get offended anyway.

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