Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Generic Pronoun 'he'

I confess to being somewhat curious about where certain novel ideas about the generic 'he' pronoun came from. In Poythress and Grudem's The TNIV and the Gender Neutral Bible I found this reference. I have marked in bold the relevant phrase. When the authors quote this entry they discreetly leave out the last sentence.

This entry is from the American Heritage Dictionary. There are now two disctinct views on the generic pronoun 'he'. One is that it "refers to a person whose gender is unspecified" and the other is that it "refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to by its antecedent." The first of these two definitions is the classic understanding. However, it appears the 'he' has been redefined.

1a. Used to refer to the man or boy previously mentioned or implied. b. Used to refer to a male animal. 2. Usage Problem Used to refer to a person whose gender is unspecified or unknown: “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence” (William Blake).
A male person or animal: Is the cat a he?
Middle English, from Old English h. See ko- in Appendix I.
Traditionally the pronouns he, him, and his have been used as generic or gender-neutral singular pronouns, as in A novelist should write about what he knows best and No one seems to take any pride in his work anymore. Since the early 20th century, however, this usage has come under increasing criticism for reflecting and perpetuating gender stereotyping. •Defenders of the traditional usage have argued that the masculine pronouns he, his, and him can be used generically to refer to men and women. This analysis of the generic use of he is linguistically doubtful. If he were truly a gender-neutral form, we would expect that it could be used to refer to the members of any group containing both men and women. But in fact the English masculine form is an odd choice when it refers to a female member of such a group. There is something plainly disconcerting about sentences such as Each of the stars of As Good As It Gets [i.e., Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt] won an Academy Award for his performance. In this case, the use of his forces the reader to envision a single male who stands as the representative member of the group, a picture that is at odds with the image that comes to mind when we picture the stars of As Good As It Gets. Thus he is not really a gender-neutral pronoun; rather, it refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to by its antecedent. The traditional usage, then, is not simply a grammatical convention; it also suggests a particular pattern of thought. •It is clear that many people now routinely construct their remarks to avoid generic he, usually using one of two strategies: changing to the plural, so they is used (which is often the easiest solution) or using compound and coordinate forms such as he/she or he or she (which can be cumbersome in sustained use). In some cases, the generic pronoun can simply be dropped or changed to an article with no change in meaning. The sentence A writer who draws on personal experience for material should not be surprised if reviewers seize on that fact is complete as it stands and requires no pronoun before the word material. The sentence Every student handed in his assignment is just as clear when written Every student handed in the assignment. •Not surprisingly, the opinion of the Usage Panel in such matters is mixed. While 37 percent actually prefer the generic his in the sentence A taxpayer who fails to disclose the source of &rule3m; income can be prosecuted under the new law, 46 percent prefer a coordinate form like his or her; 7 percent felt that no pronoun was needed in the sentence; 2 percent preferred an article, usually the; and another 2 percent overturned tradition by advocating the use of generic her, a strategy that brings the politics of language to the reader's notice. Thus a clear majority of the Panel prefers something other than his. The writer who chooses to use generic he and its inflected forms in the face of the strong trend away from that usage may be viewed as deliberately calling attention to traditional gender roles or may simply appear to be insensitive.

Update: The part in red is quoted on page 254 of The TNIV and the Gender Neutral Bible Controversy


Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Suzanne. But I am a bit confused. Which is the sentence which Poythress and Grudem leave out? The one in bold? Or the final one of your posting?

I wonder, what answer was given by the remaining 6% of the panel for "A taxpayer who fails to disclose the source of --- income can be prosecuted under the new law"? Could it have been "their"? If the 6% is simply don't-knows, then I am surprised that no one mention "their", although I would be a little surprised to find this in this rather formal context, and would prefer "his or her".

A few days ago I was watching a training video by an assistant pastor at Saddleback church, California. As he was describing the tasks of a campaign coordinator, I was interested to note that within just a minute or two he used "he or she", generic "he" and singular "they". This suggests that this is still very much something in flux.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

'He or she' is pretty clumsy except in certain cases where you want to mark this use. I am sure that I use 'they' and 'their'

I wouldn't care about this at all, either way, if it wasn't that P & G want women to have a representative male in their head. How weird is that?

They want people to build a theology on this. Think of a woman invoking the image of a male to relate to Rev. 3:20! She already has to imagine the 'door' to her heart, but now, because it must say "and sup with him" it has to be a male heart which will represent her female heart, since man is the head of woman.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Sorry Peter,

I didn't answer your question. The sentence in bold is what they depended on the most. P & G don't quote the part about appearing 'to be insensitive'. Here is a further piece.

'"He" includes both men and women, but does so using a male example as a pictorial starting point. In a subtle way, this use brings along with it an unequal prominence to men and women. Thus feminism attacks it as "unfair'. But in doing so, feminism relies on an egalitarian standard antagonistic to the Bible, for the Bible maintains some gender-based differences between men and women, and, in particular, it uses many male examples and male sample cases to express general truths. Of course, it also uses female examples, though not with the same frequency. And we must emphasize again that the Bible does teach the dignity of all human beings. Men and women alike are created in the image of God, and all have fallen into sin. But the Bible also indicates that there are differences in the gifts that God gives them and the roles that he assigns to them in this life. Feminism and egalitarianism fight against those differences.'

Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Suzanne.

Well, in response to the claim that "There is something plainly disconcerting about sentences such as Each of the stars of As Good As It Gets [i.e., Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt] won an Academy Award for his performance.", the reason is clear to me: "he" is not actually understood as generic, and so there is something disconcerting about its use except in places where the hearer can naively assume that the group referred to is in fact all male, or that the presence of some females is some kind of aberration. If I heard a teacher of a mixed group of students say something like "Each student must hand in his answers tomorrow", I would understand that this teacher in fact has a negative attitude towards the presence of women in his (or, less likely, her!) class.

My home church is mostly egalitarian, but there is one prominent woman who is strongly complementarian. She stays away when a woman is preaching or leading the service. Recently she agreed to be interviewed during a service, but the refused to allow another woman to interview her, insisting the male pastor does so instead. How can she justify it that she, as a woman, can answer questions in church, but a woman is not allowed to ask them?

Suzanne McCarthy said...

I figure that there are as many different ways of being egalitarian and complementarian as there are people in the world. Everyone cuts the pie slightly differently.

Peter Kirk said...

Well, there may be as many ways of being complementarian as there are complementarians. But not of being egalitarian, for surely the point of egalitarianism is that the pie is not cut at all, all ministries are in principle open equally to men and women, subject to individual callings, and perhaps in some cases to what is culturally acceptable e.g. it might not be appropriate for men to minsiter in a refuge for battered women.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

You are right - the pie isn't cut. But - definitely one should be culturally appropriate.

One of the greatest dangers of the complementarian position for young women is that they will aspire to relate to or be recognized by the leader, and this will always mean attracting the attention of a male. If leadership is open to both sexes, a young woman can aspire to *be* a leader, if she wants, and be mentored. This way, the goal will not be to attract attention and relate to or be important to a man, but to learn and emulate, to aspire to grow and serve.

For an egalitarian women, men are people too, just people, for a complementarian woman, men validate one's existance. Well, maybe I exaggerate, but this might explain the example from your church.

LaDeeDa said...

Hi, could you please help with the word "it", can it be used as a neuter and be correct when it is regarding a person.