Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

He said: “She said…”

with 4 comments

Tracy Kidder

Recently, I’ve been reading the excellent book Good Prose by the legendary journalist Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever seen on writing creative nonfiction, and it’s packed with interesting stories, illustrations, and advice, to the point where I suspect that we’ll start talking about Kidder and Todd in the same breath as Strunk and White. For someone like me, though, the richest section is the one near the end, in which the authors discuss specific challenges and pitfalls of usage. These range from dangling modifiers to subjunctives to the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and even experienced writers are likely to learn—or be reminded of—some useful distinctions. The discussion I read with greatest interest is the one on gendered pronouns, which presents a thicket of problems to even the most thoughtful writers. Kidder and Todd write:

In a few instances in this book we have followed the convention by which the masculine pronoun stands for both sexes. This practice is eroding fast, and with reason…In other cases requiring a singular pronoun, some writers change “he” to “she,” whether consistently or alternately or randomly. This may have come to seem natural to those who do it, but to many readers (to us) it seems self-congratulatory.

I’m inclined to agree, not so much because I think it sounds smug, but because it momentarily takes me out of whatever point the writer is trying to make: for better or worse, “he” is a more invisible prounoun than “she,” the latter of which unfortunately breaks the rule of going whenever possible for the least obtrusive way of expressing an idea. However honorable a writer’s intentions may be, I’m left with the uncomfortable fact that whenever a feminine prounoun is used to refer to a generic individual—”When a writer first looks over her work”—I’m no longer thinking about the content of the piece itself, but stray, however briefly, into a reflection about gendered language in general. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a stylistic mistake, but it’s a problem, and there’s really no good answer. Kidder and Todd continue:

Other solutions have been proposed. The conservative writer Charles Murray has an idea that is simplicity itself: use the pronoun appropriate to your own sex. (Jane says everyone/her; John says everyone/his.) Unfortunately no one seems to recognize this rule except Charles Murray, and it costs him nothing to follow it since he is a man.

Charles Murray

The authors conclude on a note of muted resignation: “The language has yet to come up with a universally acceptable solution.” Instead of dealing with the issue directly, they suggest that authors reword sentences to work around it, usually by using a plural subject. This isn’t a bad idea, and it’s the one that I’ve tended to use the most in practice. Until I started writing this blog, I’d never really had to confront the problem of gendered pronouns: I was either writing fiction or criticism, in which the gender of the person under discussion was usually clear. Soon after I wrote my first blog post, though, I found that I was writing about generic individuals almost on a daily basis, as I tried to talk about various aspects of the creative process. (“Every author develops his or her own strategies for corralling ideas…”) Early on, I used the “his or her” construction a lot, and it still crops up whenever I think the sentence can sustain it. Before long, however, I started to feel that it was clunky when overused, so I’d rewrite sentences to avoid it, and when I didn’t have a choice one way or the other, I glumly went back to the generic “he.”

Obviously, every writer will come up with his—or her—own solutions. But the larger point is that it’s often necessary to rework a sentence to avoid a construction that calls attention to itself, even if grammar is on a writer’s side. “Whom” is the great example here: even if you know how to use it correctly, it inevitably results, as Calvin Trillin notes, in making you sound like a butler. I’ll often rewrite sentences to avoid a glaring “whom,” and although it might seem undesirable to allow your grammar to be pushed around in this way, sometimes, there’s no better solution. It’s fortunate that the gendered pronoun problem admits of so many workarounds: I’ll often replace “he or she” with “you,” “we,” or best of all, “I,” since most of the unidentified writers whose lives I decribe with such confidence here are thinly disguised versions of myself. There’s no foolproof answer, but as with most things in writing, if you prefer the concrete to the abstract and the invisible to the distracting, you’ll generally come up with something that works. (Of course, I’m also keenly aware that I’ve only cited male writers, including myself, in proposing approaches to this problem, so I’d love to hear any additional thoughts.)

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2014 at 9:50 am

4 Responses

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  1. I’ve also read Good Prose and found helpful advice and inspiration within! On the question of gendered pronouns, I’d be happy to weigh in as a female voice.

    I’m actually surprised to hear that encountering a generic ‘she’ still causes you to take a mental detour, however slight. The usage is so common now, at least in the works I read, that I’m rarely conscious of it. I DO, however, notice when a writer only ever uses the generic ‘he’, and on such occasions, I find myself distracted from the subject at hand by trying to guess whether the author is unaware that this sustained usage alienates female readers or is aware but doesn’t care. Clearly, you’re in the former category (as, I imagine, are most writers who still do this).

    What are your thoughts about the colloquial solution to this problem: the generic ‘they’ used to refer to singular subjects? The fact that this solution already exists in spoken language would seem to commend it. And certainly there are other languages that have no problem using the same pronoun to refer in some cases to a plural subject and in others to a singular one (French being the example with which I’m most familiar).

    Sharon Rawlette

    January 22, 2014 at 1:38 pm

  2. Hmmm…Now that I think about it, the generic use of “he” makes me pause slightly, too, although admittedly more briefly than “she” does. So maybe the real solution is to construct sentences whenever possible to avoid the issue entirely. Thanks for weighing in!

    As for “they,” I’m fine with a construction like “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” but anything more than that still bugs me a little. Again, it’s all very subjective.


    January 22, 2014 at 3:02 pm

  3. This is why I always play it safe and say “the individual or individuals in question” in place of all gender-specific pronouns. This might also explain why my songwriting career hasn’t panned out the way I’d hoped.

    What’s funny is that after so many recent decades of cultural upheaval, no attempt at inventing a new set of terms for this purpose managed to take off. It seems like sincere attempts at expanding or improving English are doomed to the same fate as the interrobang, while the annual adoption of the latest idiotic slang fad into the OED makes headlines. If only “selfie” could be redefined as “a person of indeterminate gender.”

    And I agree that even now, using “they” or “their” as a replacement feels awkward.

    Alex Varanese

    January 24, 2014 at 1:25 pm

  4. It’s funny, isn’t it, how language resists being revised from above—it only wants to change from below. (I wonder if part of the problem with gender-neutral language is that it generally only comes up in particular kinds of written communication. If people saw it as a problem in everyday spoken language, it probably would have been fixed long ago.)


    January 24, 2014 at 2:52 pm

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