(Guest post by Tama Boyle.)
The recently published “New Zealand Law Style Guide”* states at paragraph 1.1.1(a):
Avoid gender-specific language unless it is necessary. In particular, avoid terms such as “man”, “men” or “mankind” to refer to people in general. Do not use “he” or “his” to describe people who may be male or female or male pronouns to describe grounds that may be made up of both men and women.
“Gender-specific language” are weasel words like “non-judgmental” or “work-place change consultant“. Were I to follow this prompt literally I would have to say, “My mum made up its mind,” or “Helen Clark gave me Helen Clark’s phone number“. Even “mum” and “Helen Clark” are gender-specific. I would have to change it to “Humanoid former Prime Minister” and “parent“.
I agree with the idea that chestnuts such as “To boldly go where no man has gone before” and “Since the dawn of time, man has been trying to copulate with ice cream” should be axed. (Star Trek: TNG, despite keeping the split infinitive, changed the voice over to “no one” from “no man“.)
Pronouns — which are, according to Calvin and Hobbes, nouns that have lost their amateur status — are another matter.
Take two examples:
- The alligator called his broker; and
- The insurgent asked that a beard be delivered to him
In the first example, the possessive pronoun “him” replaces “the alligator” in the subordinate clause. In the second, “the insurgent” becomes an object of a preposition and becomes the definite pronoun “him“. The argument against “gender-specific language” is, I think, that it creates an image in the mind of the reader.
The alligator is therefore a male. So is the insurgent — or judge, doctor, ventriloquist or taxidermist. I do not find that convincing because it fails to understand English and how it functions. “Alligator” and “insurgent” are nouns. In the sentences above, they function as subjects. They are subjects without gender. Traditionally, the pronouns that replace them are male. This does not create a mythical male alligator or insurgent. They are just words with semantic function.
It’s just a rule.
Ok, it’s an arbitrary rule, I admit.
But language is arbitrary. One never learns a language in trying to learn its rules. I think that when I adhere to a rule I’m showing respect toward something. In this case, that something is English. It is arbitrary that I wear pants in restaurants and that I hold doors for people. No big deal if I go half naked to a restaurant. Most people can open their own doors.
But, of course, I do wear pants and I hold doors. I do it because I am showing respect for dining and certain norms of social interaction.
What of other languages? Why is a table in French feminine? Why is the wall masculine? Better yet, why is the word “la victime” feminine but the word “le problÃ¨me” masculine? Those examples are loaded gender-specifications. Why is language like this? It just is! Perhaps the Proto-Indo-Europeans held a summit. Perhaps it was part of the truce between cro-magnons and neanderthals.
Maybe it’s just arbitrary.
What I find bad about this non-gender trend is that sentences such as “The alligator called their broker” is illogical. The alligator is singular. Why is it taking a plural pronoun? That’s like saying “He go to the store” or “We has an egg salad sandwich“.
The maths are faulty.
Our mythical male alligator and insurgent are causing our language to go weird.
And when the going gets weird, the weird turn pronoun.