“He” and Gender-Neutrality

August 18, 2006 at 4:13 am 1 comment

There is a tired old argument — there are many more, I am only addressing a specific type — for the claim that using “He” as a gender-neutral designator is sexist. It goes something like this:

1. Using ‘he’ implies all non-descript persons are male; 2. All non-descript persons are not male; 3. Language should accurately reflect reality; (from 2,3) 4. ‘He’ should not be used as a non-descript person.

This argument could be developed more, i.e. I am aware the argument can be stated more forcefully. I am developing a simpler version of the argument, so that it is easier to manage — not so that it will be easier to knock-down.

The point of constructing this argument is to get at the basic thrust of the argument: using ‘he’ is sexist because it is ususally used to designate a male, and so using it to designate a gender-less person is sexist. The argument seems to rest on a principle:

GP: For any person-designator p, if p can be used to designate a particular gender and only that gender in at least one usage, and not the other, then p should (ought) not be used to designate a gender-neutral person.

Is there any support for GP? Can an argument be presented to persuade us ‘he’ user that GP is correct?

The GP principle seems to be assuming that if we can find an instance of a pronoun being used to designate one gender, and yet not another, than that makes the usuage of that word sexist. It isn’t fair to one gender to use a word that can sometimes be used to designate a gender, and only that gender to the exclusion of the other.

But this argument, and GP principle — and other arguments that resemble this one — are based on a confusion. Confusing the practice of using a particular word a certain way, with the actual word itself.

It is clear from our everyday word usage that word can have different meanings. The word ‘he’ is no exception. The argument against using ‘he’ rests on another confusion as well: confusing the meaning of the ‘he’ when used gender-neutrally as if it is the same as using ‘he’ as a gender-specific designator.

So the confusions are two-fold:

(a) Confusing word-practice with the word itself. There is a difference between how a word is used and what the word itself. A word can be used in one way, and used in another. Using a word in specific way the majority of the time does not entail that the word cannot have another meaning — just because it is used a certain way, doesn’t mean it has to be used that way. The practice and meaning of a word are two different things

(b) Confusing the word itself with its different meanings. Often opponents of the ‘he’-term as being gender neutral treat the word as if it always means male, when clearly that is not the case. It is quite simple to see that the same word can have different meanings (ex., road, heart, love, fun …) To treat a word with different meanings, as if it always has the same meaning, or to treat word being used one way as if its being used in another way is to blur the distinction between the word itself and its meanings.


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Samuel De Mazarin  |  December 6, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    a) confusing word-practice w/ word itself: the natural development of language tends to favor word-practice rather than etymology. Meaning, a synchronic view of a word’s meaning is more relevant to any particular context than a diachronic, philologist’s more strict interpretation. For instance, “comprise” has come to mean “constitute” for even college-educated students today, though a diachronic viewpoint would reveal that “comprise” is being used incorrectly and ‘actually’ means something else (ie contains or ‘composed of’). In a sense, just because a word is used a certain way, sort of does mean it has to be used that way. If you insisted on using the word ‘sinister’ as meaning left and only left, well, you’d be completely misunderstood by everyone else in the world.

    b) confusing word itself with its different meanings: Unfortunately, most people who use the English language don’t really have an active understanding of the distinction between signified and signifier. ‘He’ typically does always mean male. The ‘gender-neutral’ concept is a relatively new one in the history of the English language and therefore its use as a gender-neutral word is dwarfed in comparison to the number of instances that it has been used as a gender-specific word.

    I would be very interested in a movement to create and spread the use of a singular non-gender pronoun. Some attempts (like ‘thon’, etc.) have been made, but in my opinion, it will require a generation of extremely good and well-loved authors and writers to agree on a single word to use in their widely-disseminated writings to get a completely new pronoun used, thereby creating a solution to the whole gender-neutral debate in English.


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