Home The Sexist Pronoun : Problem and Possible Solution

The Sexist Pronoun : Problem and Possible Solution

by Beheruz Sethna
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Once upon a time, there was a job description written for a managerial position in a company.  This is the way one of the paragraphs read:

The manager will be responsible for the smooth functioning of his department, will assist in the development of his direct reports, will directly supervise his second-in-command and delegate such duties to him as he deems appropriate, always maintaining oversight of his budgets and his major projects.  He will provide departmental reports to his supervisor according to the published schedule, or as required by him.

Ms. Goldie Locks, a new Personnel Manager, saw the job description and said, “That’s sexist.  It’s too “male”; it always uses male pronouns.  It needs rewriting.”  So, she gave it to her assistant to rewrite.  And, this is the way it now read:

The manager will be responsible for the smooth functioning of her department, will assist in the development of her direct reports, will directly supervise her second-in-command and delegate such duties to her as she deems appropriate, always maintaining oversight of her budgets and her major projects.  She will provide departmental reports to her supervisor according to the published schedule, or as required by her.

Most people who have written job descriptions or other similar paragraphs that use male or female pronouns can relate to the frustration that Ms. Locks and her assistant felt.

Ms. Goldie Locks, the Personnel Manager, saw the revised job description and said, “That’s still sexist.  It’s too “female”; it always uses female pronouns.  It needs rewriting.”  So, she gave it to her assistant to rewrite.  The assistant was told not to use exclusively male or exclusively female words.  So, the new version alternated between each.  And, this is the way the job description now read:

The manager will be responsible for the smooth functioning of her department, will assist in the development of his direct reports, will directly supervise her second-in-command and delegate such duties to him as she deems appropriate, always maintaining oversight of his budgets and her major projects.  He will provide departmental reports to her supervisor according to the published schedule, or as required by him.

Ms. Goldie Locks said, “Huh?  I don’t even know who you’re talking about.  It’s too confusing.  The manager cannot be “female” in one part of the sentence and “male” in another.  This won’t do.  It needs rewriting.”  So, she gave it to her assistant to rewrite.  And, this is the way the job description now read:

The manager will be responsible for the smooth functioning of the manager’s department, will assist in the development of the manager’s direct reports, will directly supervise the manager’s second-in-command and delegate such duties to the second-in-command as the manager deems appropriate, always maintaining oversight of the second-in-command’s budgets and the second-in-command’s major projects.  The manager will provide departmental reports to the manager’s supervisor according to the published schedule, or as required by the supervisor.

Ms. Goldie Locks read the new job description and said, “Well, at least it’s not sexist any more.  But, it’s too cumbersome not to use pronouns.  It needs rewriting.”  So, she gave it back to her assistant to rewrite using non-sexist pronouns.  And, after much grumbling from the assistant, this is the way it now read:

The manager will be responsible for the smooth functioning of their department, will assist in the development of their direct reports, will directly supervise their second-in-command and delegate such duties to them as they deem appropriate, always maintaining oversight of their budgets and their major projects.  They will provide departmental reports to their supervisor according to the published schedule, or as required by them.

Ms. Goldie Locks read the job description and said, “Well, it’s not sexist and it does use pronouns.  But, it’s not correct.  We do not have agreement between the antecedent and the pronoun; the manager cannot be responsible for the smooth functioning of their department.  On the other hand, if we change “manager” to “managers”, the pronoun will agree with the antecedent, but the job description will not be correct.  There is only one manager at this level and only one second-in-command and only one supervisor.  So, it would not be correct to use the plural either.  The job description needs rewriting.”  Then, she gave it to her assistant to rewrite.  And, after much gnashing of teeth and strong words heard muttered from the assistant’s office, this is the way the job description read:

The manager will be responsible for the smooth functioning of his or her department, will assist in the development of his or her direct reports, will directly supervise his or her second-in-command and delegate such duties to him or her as he or she deems appropriate, always maintaining oversight of his or her budgets and his or her major projects.  He or she will provide departmental reports to his or her supervisor according to the published schedule, or as required by him or her.

Ms. Goldie Locks was more satisfied than she had been before.  But, she said, “This still is too clumsy.  Can’t you rewrite it?”  And, she gave it to her assistant to rewrite.

This time, there was no grumbling, nor were there strong words heard emerging from the assistant’s room.  Within minutes, there was a note on Ms. Goldie Locks’ table.  It was a brief note from the assistant saying, “Your Assistant / He or She / We / I Quit!”

As every parent knows, there appears to be a new word added to the language every week (each of which it is at least a minor crime not to know and be able to use correctly).

Most people who have written job descriptions or other similar paragraphs that use male or female pronouns can relate to the frustration that Ms. Locks and her assistant felt.

Perhaps it is time for our language to consider the addition of a few new words to make our lives easier.  It is not as if we don’t keep adding words.  Each edition of every dictionary proudly lists new words, often slang words, it has added.  As every parent knows, there appears to be a new word added to the language every week (each of which it is at least a minor crime not to know and be able to use correctly).  Also, many professional groups keep adding new buzzwords every year.  Given that we have not exactly been parsimonious with the creation of words, a couple of new ones should not strain us significantly.

We might consider the creation of one word that we can use instead of “him or her”.  The process of constructing such a word is reasonably straightforward.  The first letter of him and her, h, is common to both words and so, should be the first letter of the new word.  We could have the second letter belong to the female pronoun and the third letter to the male pronoun to get “hem”.   Or, we could take the second letter from the male pronoun and the third from the female pronoun to get “hir”.

Now, to create a word for “his or her”.  By the reasoning of the preceding paragraph, it would be “hes” if we use the second letter from the female pronoun and the third from the male pronoun.  Alternatively, if we use the second letter from the male pronoun and the third from the female pronoun, it would be “hir”.

It would not be productive to have two “hirs”, one for the objective case and the other for the possessive case.  It is true that the objective and possessive cases for the third person singular female pronoun are currently spelled and pronounced the same, “her”.  However, since we are making changes, we might as well avoid that possible confusion.

Even if readers are in agreement so far, we may now get into tough “gender politics”.  Perhaps most men would vote for “hem” and “hes” since they most closely resemble “him” and “his”.  Perhaps most women would want “hir” (the objective case) and “hir” (the possessive case) because they most closely resemble “her” (the objective case) and “her” (the possessive).  It seems reasonable, therefore, to let each camp have its way for one of these words.

Knowing that any one of these alternatives would be equally (un)acceptable, I propose “hir” as the one objective case pronoun to substitute “him or her”, and “hes” as the one possessive case to substitute “his or her”.

To get picky, but to be fair to both genders, the pronunciation of the letter in the original word would have to come along with the letter into the new word.  So, the start of the word “hir” should be pronounced as if we were pronouncing him, but should end with the r sound.  Similarly, the start of the word “hes” should be pronounced as if we were pronouncing her, but end with the s (z) sound rather than the r sound — hez would be the correct pronunciation

Also, instead of using “he or she,” the not-uncommonly used “s/he” should be recognized as a word, and probably pronounced “ss-he” or perhaps “see”.

These new words would not substitute the individual words “him”, “her”, “his” or “her”.  So, the girl would still use her book, and the boy would still use his pencil.  If Mr. Jones shakes hands with Ms. Smith, he would still shake her hand, and she his.

However, a job description might read:

The manager will be responsible for the smooth functioning of hes department, will assist in the development of hes direct reports, will directly supervise hes second-in-command and delegate such duties to hir as s/he deems appropriate, always maintaining oversight of hes budgets and hes major projects.  S/he will provide departmental reports to hes supervisor according to the published schedule, or as required by hir.

And Mr. Goldie Locks will read the new job description and say, “This is just right!”

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