Thursday, September 30, 2010
Gender sensitivity is the name of the game
One of the problems a male writer in English is to contend with is managing to remain non-sexist in his use of the language. It is not so easy, given the built-in sexism of the English language and the hypersensitivity of a section of readers to whom every male writer is a male chauvinist pig.
If you write, "The teacher knows what is good enough for his students", you are guilty of sexism. When the word "teacher" is a singular noun of common gender, how can you assume that the reference is male? Moreover, the teaching profession is not exclusive to men. This leads you to correct your sentence as follows: "The teacher knows what is good enough for his or her students." But it is clumsy. Use the forms, he or she and his or her, consistently, and even a die-hard Women's Libber will be driven by sheer boredom to burn your writing. But there is an alternative: the use of a plural pronoun (they / their). So you rewrite your sentence as follows: "The teacher knows what is good enough for their students." But the grammarian sticks his clean nose into the business now. He tells you: "With indefinite pronouns (everyone, anyone, neither, somebody, etc.), it is all right; after all, their bisexuality is as old as Shakespeare. But with a singular noun of common gender ("teacher"), don't use they or their."
There's the rub. Do you want to be grammatically correct or politically correct? The modern tendency is to be politically correct. You can be politically correct by expressing generalizations in the plural, too. Thus we can say, "Teachers know what is good enough for their students." But it is not possible in all contexts. In all my books, I have only used he and his with singular nouns of common gender, but pointed out in my Introduction that the forms do not imply any male primacy.
But who believes you? In publishing houses, woman is a holy cow. Publishers' concern for women is so obsessive that they suspect a chauvinist male in every woodpile. Believe me, they even count the number of times the author has used the masculine nouns and pronouns to check that there is an equal number of feminine nouns and pronouns! In one of my books meant for primary children, the instruction for one of the exercises was:" Princess Jamila is hot. Join the dots and make a fan for her." A woman being hot! The in-house staff were scandalized. One of them even called it vulgar! If "Princess Jamila" had been replaced with "Prince Jamal", no vulgarity would have been detected.