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the generic "he"

Most of us of a certain age have been taught that when we wanted to use a pronoun with a singular referent where the gender was unknown, we were to use "he" because "he" is generic.

Except when it isn't, of course.

There's also the generic "she," to be used when the referent may be of either sex, but the class of the referent is generally considered female. So if the individual being referred to is a nurse or a secretary, the generic reference is properly "she." 

Frankly, the rule sucked. Little girls came home from school that day feeling excluded (not all of them, of course--just the ones whose consciousness had been raised), and rightfully so. Even some little boys thought it was a funny rule and were a little uncomfortable about it.

In the seventies, the issue was finally laid on the table, which it promptly reduced to cinders.

Some people go so far as to argue that little girls (and grownup ones) have no right to feel excluded because the usage isn't intended to be exclusionary. 

Right. Sure.

For many people of a more sympathetic turn of mind, however, the solution was simple, and suddenly "he or she" started appearing everywhere. Some people fixed with glee on "she," seeking to redress centuries of abuse. Others, in the spirit of fair play, alternated between "he" and "she." Still others slid into "he/she" or that abomination, "s/he," which makes me writhe on the floor in pain.

All of these supposed "solutions" have one failing in common--they call undue attention to a usage ("Hey, look at me--I'm politically correct!") and interfere with effective communication.

But if you take a look at non-fiction materials that have come from major American publishers in the last quarter century, you'll notice the funniest damn thing. They don't use the generic "he" or the generic "she" and they don't use any of "he or she," "he/she," or "s/he," either. 

How do they do that? They follow the "Real Writers Write Around the Problem" (RWWATP) rule:

Make the sentence plural:
   "Students must bring a note from their parents."
Some people will whine that the number of notes and parents is ambiguous here, but no student will be confused about the requirement.
Use the second person:
   "If you enter the FILE command, you get . . . ."
This solution, widely used for software manuals, has the added benefit of being better-received and better-comprehended by readers.
Replace the pronoun with the noun it refers to:
   "When a nurse comes into the patient's room, the nurse . . . ."

Then, for the brave and bold, there's also the singular "they."

There will be times when nothing but a "he or she" will do, but under those circumstances, the reader will understand the necessity--it isn't political correctness, it is effective communication.

 

 

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