writing "she" just to be on the safe side

June 7th, 2008

I won't state this is common and therefore some kind of major concern. But I have been seeing this with increased regularity. Some people who write about an abstract and gender neutral person (eg. "the salesman") will write "she" when referring to this person, apparently just to be on the safe side vis a vis sexism. This is yet another case of being concerned with the wrong issues and expending energy on things that don't matter.1

If you are a reader who actually finds fault with use of the male pronoun to describe a non-specific gender neutral person, stop victimizing yourself (if you're a woman) or stop sympathy-victimizing (if you're a man). (See how I neatly handled both cases, I'm so politically correct.)

Guy Steele said it best, on a completely different subject, in his talk "Growing a language":

To keep things short, when I say "he" I mean "he or she", and when I say "his" I mean "his or her".

But it really shouldn't be necessary to make this qualification to anyone who can understand that use of a pronoun in a context where it appears incidentally is not a covert plot to put you down. Monty Python also had an elegant and hilarious contribution to this discussion in Life of Brian.

  1. Of course, this whole blog entry is just an example of that too, but I can still argue that I'm the only person arguing this issue while there's many more wasting their energies on the issue at hand.
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1 Responses to "writing "she" just to be on the safe side"

  1. Boyo says:

    Amazing. I was thinking about doing this just the other day. I usually write my reports in the 'he' and 'him' style, while adding a disclaimer at the start of the report that where I write 'he' it can also refer to a 'she'. And I thought to myself, why not turn it around and write the next report about 'she' and 'her' and add a disclaimer that says where I write 'she' it can also refer to a 'he'. No one does it around here, but PC issues such as diversity are very popular, so I'm sure I'll get noticed in a positive way. And if not, I'll just label myself as a 'sympathy-victimizer', and gain sympathy just the same.