A while back, I wrote about the state of gender neutral pronouns in writing. Until we get to the point where the singular “they” is standard, however, there is the question of how to negotiate the singular gender pronouns “she” and “he” in academic writing.
The usual way of describing a generic or hypothetical subject in nonfiction writing was, for a long time, with a masculine pronoun, unless there was a particular reason for using the feminine, a practice called the generic masculine. I happen to be reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations right now, and he gives us plenty of examples:
Among the savage nations of hunters and fishers, every individual who is able to work is more or less employed in useful labour, and endeavours to provide, as well as he can, the necessaries and conveniencies of life, for himself, and such of his family or tribe as are either too old, or too young, or too infirm, to go a-hunting and fishing. (Smith  1909, 5)
But: “In most parts of Scotland, she is a good spinner who can earn twentypence a-week” (Smith  1909, 125).
Smith, of course, wrote during a time period when this was normal and unquestioned. In the first quotation, the pronouns, despite being gendered masculine, are meant to be read as generic. Whether Smith was thinking of individuals of both sexes when he wrote that paragraph or just of men is unknown and, for the purpose of the book, not very important. In the second, the worker being described is explicitly intended to be read as female. It took 125 pages for him to use the word “she,” though in previous chapters, “her” appears in references to “a tender mother” (117), “the labour of the wife” (72), and a greyhound (19).
That was 1776, but you’d have found the same sort of thing in 1976. Since then, however, a lot more options have come into circulation, and now you can choose among:
I realize that my background in women’s studies influences my perspective and what reads as normal to me now, but it still surprises me when contemporary writers or editors go the traditional, generic-masculine route on this, not because their subject matter only pertains to men (in which case it is appropriate) but merely because it is traditional. Their reasoning is usually that any of the other nine options listed (or others I haven’t) will be “distracting” to the reader.
Gender, as they say, is fluid
Copyeditors end up in an interesting bind here because most of our work actually is geared toward eliminating distractions that pull the reader’s attention away from the content or purpose of the work. I’ve used the d-word a good bit in this very blog. In what follows, I’ll be basing my recommendations on the assumption that at our current stage in writing evolution, no pronoun option is universally—or even to the majority—less distracting than any other, so that concern becomes largely moot (though for specific audiences it may not be).
The perspective that the generic masculine is sexist is no longer a view held solely by radical feminists and the PC (as in political correctness, not personal computer) police. Psychologist and cognitive scientist Brian D. Earp explores the decline and imminent extinction of masculine generics, and with respect to contemporary style manuals, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty writes:
All the major style guides that I checked recommend against using “he” in a generic way. (I specifically checked MLA, APA, and Chicago, and I know I have seen it in others. The Associated Press allows “he,” but also says it’s usually better to rewrite your sentence.) (Fogarty 2011, 1)
If you’re writing for an academic audience, note that the only style guide Fogarty examined that even allows the generic masculine is the nonacademic one, and that one as well prefers alternatives. The Chicago Manual of Style is particularly frank about this, noting that it’s “now widely considered sexist” (section 5.34) and that “he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex” (section 5.46).
If you’re not writing for an academic audience, and you aren’t otherwise governed by a style guide, you can do as you please. But as I noted above, all ten of the options I have listed will be distracting to someone. Using the generic masculine, however, is the only one that will both call attention to itself and lead some of your readers to wonder if you’ve read a book in the past twenty years.
Recommendations from style guides
Chicago and APA are in agreement about what to do instead of the generic masculine. The preferred approach in both manuals is to recast the sentence to avoid the issue altogether. Chicago’s nine-point list is particularly useful, offering the following tips:
If and when these revisions aren’t going to work, both manuals recommend using he or she (APA also allows she or he*) but doing so “sparingly”; this is, as you can see here, number eight on the list from Chicago. Notably, the reason for the use of the word “sparingly” in both cases is not because the phrase is distracting but because it’s wordy and cumbersome. When the central habit of editing is to trim and streamline, it feels wrong to add.
An increasingly common alternative to the generic masculine has been to alternate pronouns throughout one’s piece, using a female subject in one’s first example, a male subject in the next, and so on. I’ve seen this mostly in magazine journalism, professional blogs, and other types of nonfiction writing that aim for a casual tone, though it's also fairly prevalent in women's studies. Although I’d even venture to say that it’s becoming the dominant choice in these genres and fields, it’s also the one that I’ve seen attract the most objections of “It’s distracting!” from fellow copyeditors when the subject comes up.
APA considers it to be so, as well, but it actually focuses on a very different argument against it, suggesting that it “implies that he or she can in fact be generic, which is not the case. Use of either pronoun unavoidably suggests that specific gender to the reader.” We’re pretty conclusively past the point where “he” can unproblematically refer to a human being whose sex is irrelevant. Sex makes itself relevant. And that’s not a bad thing.
Maybe the alternatives should be distracting
I will go ahead and get a little political here. As I mentioned above, one of the goals of editing is to fashion the language so that it contributes to and clarifies the author’s points rather than distracting from them (whether through errors or through an inappropriate style or tone), and this is why the subject raises friction among this group of professionals. Most copyeditors will probably favor recasting sentences to avoid the singular gendered pronouns, and that’s fine. There are, however, a few who cling to the generic masculine because—I have no idea why—they think it’s less distracting than he or she or alternating pronouns.
But if there is a reason anyone in the 21st century would still be distracted by these alternatives—or more so, at any rate, than the generic masculine—it is that they haven’t seen enough of them. If the reading eye isn’t used to seeing what is increasingly regarded as unbiased language, then maybe we shouldn’t be shying away from making the owner of that eye aware of it.
For further reading
Although most people recognize that there’s some controversy around the use of the generic masculine, not everyone truly understands why beyond knowing that “it’s a feminist thing.” A good scholarly discussion on the topic is Deborah Cameron’s “Feminist Linguistic Theories” in Contemporary Feminist Theories (ed. Stevi Jackson). There is a partial preview of this chapter on Google books (the first page of the chapter is unavailable, so scroll down to page 148).
*Interestingly, APA accepts he or she but not he/she or (s)he. Chicago doesn’t comment on these two.
Cameron, Deborah. 1998. “Feminist Linguistic Theories.” In Contemporary Feminist Theories, edited by Stevi Jackson, 147–61. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Earp, Brian. 2012. “The Extinction of Masculine Generics.” Journal for Communication and Culture 2 (1): 4–19.
Fogarty, Mignon. 2011. “Generic Singular Pronouns.” Quick and Dirty Tips, October 20. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/generic-singular-pronouns
Smith, Adam. (1776) 1909. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Vol. 9 of the Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Son.
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