solving the pronoun problem

Solving the Pronoun Problem

In his recent post, Cody Kommers suggests that in order to correct the hundreds of years that our language used the generic masculine, a better approach than struggling with “he or she” or “s/he,” or going back and forth between the generic masculine and generic feminine, is that we simply switch to the generic feminine. I am not quite sure if he is serious or not, but will assume he is. I am not happy with his suggestion since I don’t feel that correcting one unfairness is solved by creating another.

Further, in this case, it would mean that a group of young people who are clearly struggling, namely boys and men, who, in fact, have grown up without the generic masculine, and whose struggles especially include reading, will now be reading much material with the generic “she” and “her.” Is this the message of exclusion we truly want to send to our already underperforming sons and grandsons, who had absolutely nothing to do with the possible sexism of prior pronoun usage?

But I would like to lighten things up a little by discussing a solution to the pronoun problem that is as simple as Mr. Kommers’, completely balanced, and non-sexist. To this end, I offer a humor column I wrote and published way back in November 1985. Yes, it’s humor and perhaps a bit extreme, but it does offer what I refer to as “ultimate solution” to this issue.

Keep in mind as you read this that I wrote it more than 32 years ago.

November 1985

Some time ago, pronouns became a problem. Well, not all pronouns. We and us, I and me, you and them–they’re still okay. It’s the infamous “third person singular” that has caused all our difficulties; in particular, it’s she and he.

Actually, there are two major problems with she and he (and hers and his, etc.). The first has been widely discussed–the implicit exclusion of females by the so-called “generic masculine”–as in “Each of us will have to do his share.” Most writers and public speakers now acknowledge the need to strictly limit, if not eliminate, the generic masculine, and hence they use plurals–”we all have to do our share”–or a combination, such as “s/he.” This can become unwieldy, as in “Every child will have to raise his or her hand if s/he want to work on his/her project.”

Another more subtle problem is the ordinary individual use of he or she. Your gender is always identified in language. You are always a she or a he, and there is no way around it. Ever notice how impossible it is to talk about someone without identifying gender? You wind up saying something like “So this person said to me that this person’s car wouldn’t start. So then this person…”

Suppose you don’t want your gender known? You can use a name like Lee or Leslie, but even then, sooner or later you’ll be a she or a he. It is easy to talk about a person without identifying his or her age or race, but it is almost impossible to hide his or her gender.

As usual, when we have a problem, we try all sorts of complex solutions, not noticing the simple one, the one that immediately and completely solves the problem. I propose that simple solution, a small change in language that will save print, be totally non-sexist, allow gender-free descriptions, and finally, as a bonus, express our solidarity with our technology and other things we love. Let’s just throw away he and she, and replace them with it. That’s right. It.

It won’t be hard. We already use it when talking about a baby whose gender we don’t know. (Oh, isn’t it cute!) And we use it to describe our beloved machines. I love my car, which I have owned for nearly 19 years, but my car, little sweetie that it is, is still, and always will be, an it.

Well, if my car can be an it, I can be an it too.

Let’s see how our language will sound when we have implemented this ultimate solution to the pronoun problem. Consider Jack talking to his friend about his date last night, his first date with Jill: “Oh, it is something. It looks great. And it has this great car. It’s a beauty. It has really beautiful hair. We took a really nice ride, and it gets over 45 miles to the gallon. And it likes rock climbing!”

I know it sounds a little strange, but we will get used to it.


This article first appeared here.

Photo credit

Mark Sherman, Ph.D.

View posts by Mark Sherman, Ph.D.
Mark Sherman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology, he taught for 25 years at SUNY New Paltz, soon specializing in gender issues. By the early 1990s, his principal interest was -- and remains -- the crises facing boys and men (especially young men). He is a member of the multi-partisan coalition for the establishment of a White House Council on Boys and Men, and writes regularly for Psychology Today, principally on issues facing males -- especially those under the age of 30. His strong interest in this comes not only from his academic background and his social concerns, but are quite personal as well: Sherman is the father of three sons and the grandfather of five grandsons.

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