Jots and Tittles: Battle of the sexes.

Back in the 1980s, a lot of fuss was made about what became known as “political correctness”. Since language can affect, as well as reflect, the way we perceive reality, we should avoid using language that is hurtful or demeaning to certain sectors of society.

Opinion became sharply divided on the issue, with each side making absurd accusations about the other, to the point where sometimes the facts (as so often in such debates) got lost. It is not, for example, true that the politically correct lobby insisted we replace the word “fat” with the term “horizontally challenged”; neither is it true that people who insisted on sticking to more traditional forms are deliberately trying to perpetuate some kind of despotic patriarchy and demean others.

In this regard, I think we now live in saner times and tempers have cooled considerably. For writers, though, things have changed slightly, and we have to recognise that things which may not have caused offence fifty years ago may do so now. I think, though, that it is definitely possible to avoid them in a manner which is unobtrusive and thus inoffensive to the traditionalists among us.

Jobs for the girls

One thing that has changed greatly is the abandonment of different job titles for men and women. In many cases, the old feminine forms have simply fallen into disuse: a female manager is no longer a manageress, for example. The word actress is also becoming less common, meaning that sentences such as Hollywood is full of actors is not necessarily seen as unfairly weighted towards the idea of male actors. Some feminine terms are so obscure anyway, few people even know they exist: did you know, for example, that the traditional feminine form for “executor” used to be “executrix”?

In other cases, gender-specific terms both masculine and feminine have been changed to a new, non-gender-specific term. Airline passengers today are looked after not by stewards and stewardesses, but by flight attendants. policemen and policewomen are now lumped together as police officers. Similarly, we have firefighters and (at least in America) mail carriers.

An apparent exception to this is midwife, which sounds very gender-specific. But in fact, although midwives are almost always women, it is possible to have male midwives. “Wife” is actually an old word for “woman” (not necessarily married), and the word “midwife” means something like, “one who assists a woman”. It refers to the gender of the person being helped, not that of the person doing the job.

Fortunately for us, English has, for a very long time, had gender-neutral terms for all sorts of professions (unlike many European languages which, for reasons of grammar, have different forms for male and female versions). If there are implications of gender, this has nothing to do with the words themselves, and more to do with our own expectations, as the following riddle illustrates:

A terrible accident has occured. One man is dead, and his badly injured son is rushed to hospital and straight to the operating theatre. The surgeon, however, takes one look at the patient and, quite truthfully, declares: "I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son." How is this possible?

The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, but many people fail to consider this possibility. That’s not because there is anything masculine about the word “surgeon”, but because this profession is traditionally seen as male-dominated. On a related subject, not all nurses are female; most are, but the word itself is gender-neutral.

This is the case with a whole slew of words and phrases in a similar vein: teachers, shopkeepers, farmers, prime ministers, doctors, producers, artists, musicians, athletes… the list goes on.

The male embraces the female

Compared with, say, German or French, this is actually rather gratifyingly egalitarian and, on the face of it, makes it a lot easier in English to avoid giving offence. But there are some difficulties. Consider this sentence:

A doctor must always look after his patients.

A generation or two ago, this would have been perfectly acceptable, but is now likely to result in letters of protest. The culprit here is the word “his”, which is an example of the generic masculine. Traditionally, in cases like this where the gender of the subject is unknown, the masculine was used, and it was understood to mean either gender, as appropriate. As it has sometimes been expressed: the male embraces the female.

These days that’s not considered good enough, and is felt to be unfair on all those female doctors who, after all, are as much obliged as their male colleagues to look after patients. Over the last few decades, several methods of redressing the balance have been tried, with varying degrees of success:

  • Write …his or her patients. This certainly eliminates the problem of the generic masculine, but repeating this phrase over and over again quickly becomes tedious. It is often written …his/her patients, which looks rather ugly. Some also object to the way the masculine word is nearly always placed first, which, it is felt, asserts male superiority. One way around that is to reverse the order in successive sentences.
  • Alternate between masculine and feminine. This stops the tedium, but can also confuse readers, forcing them to backtrack to check exactly how many people we are talking about.
  • Write A doctor … their patients. This use of the third person singular is actually a very old technique, but fell into disuse a few generations ago. Many people (myself included) have tried to resurrect this device, but it is now unusual enough that it jars with many readers, and is seen by some as grammatically incorrect and therefore illiterate.
  • Write Doctors … their patients. Recasting the sentence in the plural is perhaps the easiest and most natural solution. It completely eliminates the need to worry about gender at all, but at the same time it doesn’t sound contrived.

My own preference is for gender-neutral language to be used, but for it to be as unobtrusive as possible. I personally find it very annoying to read a text written by someone who has gone beyond their (hah!) remit and made the text so militantly gender-neutral you can’t help but notice. That kind of thing merely distracts readers from the message the text is supposed to convey and instead cries out shrilly, “Look at me! I’m gender neutral!”

For that reason, I would opt for the final option wherever possible: recast your sentence in the plural. We are fortunate that, in English, this is a pretty good way of ensuring that a text has a good chance of being gender-neutral (speakers of some other languages are not so fortunate), and the result should satisfy both the politically correct lobby and the die-hard traditionalists — neither of which will be able to find fault with you. Everybody wins.

Of course, you shouldn’t go overboard and exterminate every last singular gender-specific pronoun and adjective. Take the old joke:

Did you hear about the cross-eyed teacher? He couldn’t control his pupils.

In this case, we are not using a singular noun stand in for a whole group of people; instead, we are talking about one specific (although fictional) teacher. It would be absurd to write He or she couldn’t control his or her pupils, for example.

Throughout this site, I have tried to avoid gender-specific terms and constructions on the one hand, and jarring contrivances on the other. I hope I have succeeded.

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