Thursday, January 24, 2013

He, She, It, or They

Well, that was annoying.

It was a conference call, and yes, conference calls are annoying in and of themselves.  In this case, though, the conference presenter kept referring to us as "You ladies" despite the fact that I clearly spoke in the beginning and at several points through the conference in a fairly deep voice, and also despite the fact that I've met several people on the call in person.  There's no reason anyone would've thought the label "lady" should apply to me. 

Ladies (those of you who truly deserve the title by virtue of being a female-gendered member of the human species) I apologize on behalf of all my fellow males for every time you've had to sit through a presentation or meeting and be referred to under the label "gentlemen." 

So yeah--if you have one woman in a group of men, or conversely one man in a group of women, you no longer should be referring to the group in a gender-specific manner, but rather as attendees, colleagues, teammates, etc.

And yes, I know that when they wrote the American Declaration of Independence they specifically said "all men" are created equal.  No, I don't think it was a simple grammar error.  Keep in mind that that phrase was written nearly two centuries before women could vote.  I don't even think they meant to say all men, actually, but that's a whole different discussion.

So, in groups/conferences/e-mails, use the non-gender-specific options.  What about in our writing?

Tough call, that, because a lot of authoritative people have spoken, and they've said different things.  Back when I was in grammar classes, the most authoritative person I knew was my grammar teacher.  She taught that the correct thing to do was to give both pronouns if the gender wasn't known: "If a student is to be successful, then he or she needs to learn how to use pronouns properly."  Okay, fine, but that creates quite the wordy writing if you do it too often--you get "he or she"s (or "she or he"s if you're truly being gender-neutral) splatter-painted on the manuscript.

Then I was taught, later on, and I can't recall by whom, that it is acceptable in an unclear-gender case to use the gender-neutral but plural "they."  I spent some time thinking that "If a student is to be successful, then they need to learn how to use pronouns properly" was just fine.  Right, I know it doesn't specifically match the antecedent, but who cares?  This is English we're talking about, rather than some language with consistent rules, if such a language even exists.

It isn't correct, though.  Oh, some sources say it is; I Googled the question and found a couple of collegiate English departments suggesting it was the thing to do.  Many disagree, as do I.  As does, I found, the Grand Poobah of academic writing in the United States, the American Psychological Association.

What is the APA's take, then?  Just avoid it, they say.  Their suggestions are to:
a) rephrase the sentence to avoid the question ("A student who is to be successful needs to learn how to use pronouns properly");
b) use plural nouns so as to make the they work ("If students are to be successful, then they need to learn how to use pronouns properly");
c) replace the offending pronoun with an article (doesn't work here);
d) drop the pronoun altogether ("If a student is to be successful, then there is a need to learn how to use pronouns properly" - ugh on that one); or
e) replace the pronoun with a noun (preferably not a repetitive one) ("If a student is to be successful, then that person needs to learn how to use pronouns properly").
(revised from Purdue OWL's APA Formatting and Style Guide)

Ugh.  The whole avoidance thing isn't a bad idea, I suppose.  Still, some of the techniques result in a degree of ugliness.  And besides, sometimes we just want to say it the way we want to say it.

Which brings me, incidentally, to another point: dialog.  We know that dialog crafting is important in stories.  We've also been, I'm sure, to enough writing conferences that we can repeat "show, don't tell" in our collective sleep.  So what better way is there to show a character's attitudes toward gender equality, if they're an issue, than to repetitively violate the rules of pronoun selection?

All of which brings me to my last point: your dangling stuff.  Technically, it's called dangling antecedents.  It's when you read a sentence like this one and are left wondering what "it" I'm talking about.

I got a chuckle while doing the research for this article; I found an English grammar site for a Chilean organization online that had the following:

Be careful when using 'it' as an object pronoun because it is only in the correct context that it has meaning. It needs to have already been mentioned or obvious to the listener what you are referring to. Compare;

  • You are sitting on it! (The listener probably doesn't know what the speaker refers to).
  • The letter is on the sofa. You are sitting on it! (It is obvious in the second sentence that the reference is to the letter)
I couldn't help but read that second example and scratch my head.  It isn't obvious to me that in the second sentence the reference is to the letter.  To me, it could just as easily be a reference to the sofa. 

And on that note, I shall leave it alone and wish you a very good day.


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